Women on corporate boards around the world - Triggers and barriers

The number of women on corporate boards worldwide remains proportionately low. This research looks at the influence, both positive and negative, that several key institutions have on this state of affairs.

Despite considerable press interest and the sympathetic attention of policy makers, academics and practitioners, female representation on company boards remains proportionately low worldwide.

There have been several reasons suggested for this, such as women's family responsibilities and inherited tendencies to display fewer of the necessary traits to pursue high-level positions. There is a perception that men tend to value and engage in more assertive and competitive behaviours. Women traditionally occupy more caretaking roles, and value more communal behaviour. Yet there is disparity in the achievement of better female representation among societies across the globe. While some countries have failed to see even one female director appointed, others enjoy a high proportion of female directors on their corporate boards.

This research looks at several key social institutions and tests how their influence can sway attitudes towards female appointment to board level in both positive and negative ways.

Examining data from across 45 countries, this study tested 3 hypotheses -

1) The level of women's representation in politics will positively impact on the prevalence of women on boards of corporate directors.

The study finds that strong representation of women in parliament has a positive impact on the prevalence of women on boards. The presence of female directors in key societal institutions, such as government, helps reduce traditional gender stereotypes. This leads to a wider acceptance of women in high profile positions outside of politics. Visible female politicians, inhabiting positions of power and influence, may also motivate women to pursue such roles, in both politics and business.

2) The institutional development of a country's economic environment positively impacts on the prevalence of women on boards of corporate directors

The research found that this hypothesis was not strongly supported. Some highly developed economies do indeed have high representation of women at board level but others, Japan being a prime example, do not.

3) The degree of religiosity in a society relates negatively to the prevalence of women on boards of corporate directors

The research backed this hypothesis. Strict, ingrained attitudes that emanate from religion tend to favour clearly defined and traditional gender roles, such as that men achieve and govern, and women produce and care for children. Religious views tend not to evolve, so countries where religion has great influence on society and culture tend to see poor levels of female representation at board level. Such is the influence of some religions that they could conceivably have a positive effect on the numbers of women on corporate boards but significant change within them would be required for this to occur.

This paper looks at the current state of board gender diversity across a significant array of countries, and offers an insight into the gender role attitudes that help shape it. It provides enhanced understanding of the particular institutional forces that may impede or facilitate women's involvement in corporate leadership, in both Western and Non-Western societies. The analysis could assist policy makers in addressing gender inequality at corporate board level. Moreover, it could help companies understand local dynamics and customs relating to equality in specific countries they may operate in. It could inform decisions whether to operate in certain countries where equality is a norm and there is greater chance of utilising both female and male talent, or choose to enter a country where there are institutional barriers to equality and then utilise female talent as a competitive advantage.

This research has been published in The Leadership Quarterly. A draft version of the research paper is available for download below.


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