The Real Reason Boardroom Gender Diversity Remains Elusive

It’s hard to avoid all the press coverage and policy initiatives on the topic of gender diversity in the boardroom. A number of studies – McKinsey’s “Women Matter” initiative, the Lord Davies “Women on Boards” reports, to name a few – found female representation on boards correlates favourably with company performance.  Yet despite some small but encouraging gains, female representation on company boards continues to trail their representation in business and management roles, not to mention the working population at large.


No one’s so brazen to voice belief that a woman with the same qualifications and career track record is somehow inherently less capable than her male peers.

What’s keeping women off boards is rather more subtle – and damaging – than that: apathy. A significant minority of senior business and management professionals simply don’t believe that gender diversity on boards of directors is a good thing. If it doesn’t matter, why do it? These are people in a position to promote, mentor and appoint the current and future generation of business leaders, yet in their minds, diversity – that is to say, equality – doesn’t merit consideration when making appointment decisions.

New research from Executives Online among nearly 400 senior managers and executives reveals that while 71 percent of top executives agree with McKinsey and Lord Davies and the others that gender diversity in the boardroom is always a good thing,  nearly a third (29 percent) of all senior executives doubt its value altogether.

Even among the 71 percent who rate diversity positively, views differ on how to achieve it. Germany and Norway have implemented quotas – mandating that a certain portion of board seats be held by women. Quotas are controversial, and indeed the views of the executives we surveyed on quotas were less than enthusiastic: Three quarters of top executives we surveyed believe that more appointments of women to senior executive roles can be achieved without quotas, whereas less than a quarter (21 percent), believe that quotas should be introduced.

Executives Online’s research also looked at possible alternatives to quotas for achieving gender diversity in the boardroom. More than a quarter (27 percent) of respondents cite mentoring and guidance for high-potential female executives earlier in their careers as a potential option.  Just over a quarter of respondents (26 percent) advocate continuing to bang the drum: that continued discussion and visibility on the issue would be the key driver to changing views and behaviours. Focusing on women’s traditional role in family life and the difficulty of combining this with a career leading to the boardroom, over a fifth (21 percent) advocate the availability of flexible working arrangements.

Examining the detailed explanations given by respondents, it’s interesting to note that the majority of those opposed to quotas express concerns that important positions may be awarded to women despite there being better qualified male candidates.  They believe that candidates should always be appointed on merit alone. Others express concern that women may feel undermined due to inferences that they were awarded their position not on merit, but rather to fulfil a quota.

Our research looked at the perceived advantages and disadvantages of boardroom gender diversity.  Over a third of all respondents believe that a major benefit of gender diversity in the boardroom is broader visionary thinking (35 percent), while nearly a fifth (18 percent) think that diversity delivers better governance.  Other benefits cited are more innovation (17 percent) and better risk management (14 percent).

However, nearly a third (30 percent) of those polled believe there are potential downsides to gender diversity in the boardroom, including conflict (11 percent); indecision (nine percent); blockages (eight percent); and lack of direction (seven percent).

The lack of progress towards achieving boardroom gender diversity has brought renewed attention to the question of whether companies are taking appropriate measures to provide equal opportunity to women and whether failure to do so is putting their firms at a disadvantage.  Our research shows that a significant proportion of top UK executives dismiss the idea that boardroom gender diversity provides value, helping to explain why so few senior executive roles are held by women.

Executives Online’s research was conducted in November 2013, announced in January 2014 and has been covered in HR Magazine, Recruitment International, HR Review, OnRec, and elsewhere.

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