Female Fortune 500 board directors use various tactics to accomplish boardroom goals

Only 15% of CEOS, and 25% of board directors at Fortune 500 companies are female. The few who have managed to succeed have likely done so by being both warm and competent, according to new research published in Organisation Science.

This draining dual role creates additional pressures for women to invest unequal time, thought and effort into their self-presentations compared to their male counterparts, and likely fuels the gender disparity within senior roles.

“Our study suggests that women directors expend an incredible amount of energy managing how and when they discuss matters, which can reduce the overall effectiveness of the board,” says Professor Courtney McCluney of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “It further undermines the reason for diversifying the board. Do companies truly want a different perspective, or do they want visibly different directors who agree with the status quo?”

Through interviews with 43 female directors of publicly traded companies, this research discovered three groups of participation tactics. These were warmth-based tactics, including making connections and asking questions; competence-based tactics, to do with assertion and qualification of skills; and hybrid tactics, which included waiting to share insights, and checking with others outside of board meetings.  

“In unpacking types of tactics, we develop a more complete understanding of women’s experiences participating in male-dominated roles, and emphasize the need for scholars to incorporate a broader and more precise range of behaviours to account for within-gender descriptions of participation behaviours,” the authors write.

Fortune 500, women, gender disparity, gender bias
In 2021, the number of women running businesses on the Fortune 500 hit an all-time record: 41. Credit: Lance Lambert / Fortune

These directors then had to switch up their behaviours, depending on the situation and their goals. For example, warm tactics worked best when trying to diversify conversations, while competence tactics worked best for amplifying their level of experience. Hybrid tactics worked best when clarifying perspectives.

“Identifying what makes women effective participants on boards expands their influence on company decisions, which can be critical for financial performance and safety recalls,” says McCluney.

This work comes well-timed given the current attention on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in workplaces. This is no stranger in STEM, where in reference letters for postgraduates, women were are often described using warmth characteristics, such as “delightful” or “compassionate”, while men were described using competence-based adjectives, such as  “leader” or “exceptional”. This ultimately impacts the likelihood of employment based on gender, and needs to be addressed as part of cultural change towards gender parity across professional environments.

“Assessing the culture of boards and any governing body such as the US Supreme Court is just as important as adding traditionally excluded members to its ranks,” says McCluney. “Creating change from within will need to start with foundational changes in what it means to participate as a director.”

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