Gender-based barriers still prevalent on corporate boards across the world

In 2012, women held just over 10 percent of seats on corporate boards around the globe – and  a new survey of the women who do make it onto boards reveals some of the barriers that they still face at the top.

Boris Groysberg and Deborah Bell of the Harvard Business School worked with Heidrick & Struggles and WomenCorporateDirectors to conduct annual surveys of board members, and they just released the results of the 2010 survey of 294 women and 104 men.

The researchers found that 87 percent of female board directors reported that they have to overcome obstacles related to gender. About twenty percent said they aren’t heard or listened to, weren’t accepted as equal or part of the “in” group, or have trouble establishing credibility. One respondent noted,

“It’s been a challenge earning respect and being treated as an equal member, particularly with older board members.”

Another said that she has to “establish my credentials over and over; it never stops.” Five percent said they had experienced stereotypes of expected female behavior.

One respondent shared a particularly striking anecdote: the CEO and other male directors had asked her to be “less vocal” during meetings and at one point when she was asking questions about a strategic decision a male director interrupted to say,

“You’re behaving just like my daughter! You’re arguing too much – just stop!”

Yet when men were asked if female directors face hurdles that men do not, the majority, 56 percent, said no. And of those who said they do face challenges, more than a quarter pointed to lack of experience or industry knowledge as getting in the way. Just 22 percent named bias or prejudice and 14 percent said women have to work harder to prove themselves.

The survey, however, found that women may need to work harder than men to be appointed to boards. More of the women directors were employed in a lead role such as CEO or president. As the researchers note,

“These findings suggest that to receive invitations to boards, women might need to be more accomplished than men.”

The survey also found that women may need to make personal trade offs to get to these top positions. Fewer women were married or had children compared to men and a larger percentage of women were divorced. These trends were even stronger in the United States, which does not have a quota system for women’s representation on corporate boards. The study notes, “A greater percentage of female directors outside the U.S. were married and had children, and those with children had slightly more.” This may be due to the lack of parental support, such as paid leave and child care, in the U.S. compared to other developed peers.

In terms of representation at board level, the number of females in the UK and the US still lag behind many developed peers, including Norway, where they hold more than 40 percent of seats, and Sweden and Finland, where they hold just under 30 percent. Norway has a quota requiring companies to have women in 40 percent of board seats. The European Union is still considering a similar measure, with the ‘timeline’ more of a sticking point than the principle of quotas itself.

As Heather White, CEO of The Non Exec Hub, noted:

“Achieving a more balanced representation for these positions would likely boost companies’ earnings. One comprehensive European-wide study last year, by McKinsey, found that companies with gender diverse boards outperformed male only ones by 26 percent; and another more recent report by Credit Suisse has found that boards with at least three directors of both genders had a significantly larger return on equity and net profit margin.”

White was somewhat sanguine about the occasional struggles experienced by both sexes at board level.

“Our own NED/Trustee Insight Report, which studied the journey for no fewer than 638 current and aspiring NEDs and Trustees, revealed similar experiences. That probably won’t change anytime soon – but the secret to securing the role that’s right for you remains to be as networked as you possibly can – and never stop that networking process. That’s as true for Executive Board Directors as it is for Non Executive Directors and Trustees.”

Heather White is CEO of Non Exec Hub. To find out more about this online community and unique resource, contact her at [email protected]

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