Are women different?

In Monday’s FT, Lucy Kellaway writes about the impact that she, specifically as a female non-executive director (of Admiral, the FTSE 100 car insurance group), has on her board.

How much does gender deliver diversity? Will a woman inevitably bring a different perspective to the board table than a man, or do we exaggerate the importance of gender in our drive for more heterogeneous management teams? Kellaway goes on to take a tilt at another mantra for increasing female participation at board level: positive role modelling. She writes:

“I don’t kid myself that my own inanely grinning face in the annual report is a good example to bright, ambitious women working in the company on whose board I serve.”

In an article published last year in European Management Review, an international journal, Sabina Nielsen and Morten Huse discussed their research into the contributions made by women directors to board decision-making and strategic involvement at 120 Norwegian companies.

Because Norway has the highest level of participation of women in the boardroom globally, having introduced a 40 per cent quota in 2008, it makes for a useful gender lab.

Broadly, the researchers found it was not gender as such that underpinned women’s different perspectives, but rather the varied professional experience and value systems they tended to bring to the boardroom. More women than men in the research sample had higher degrees and non-business backgrounds. They were less likely than men to tolerate ethical lapses such as insider trading.

Most of them held, like Kellaway, non-executive roles, and those who were executive directors tended to be in “soft” areas such as human resources, marketing and corporate and social responsibility. This difference led to a commonly held notion, among both male and female directors, that female board members were less central to driving their boards’ decisions than their male counterparts. There was a difference in those cases where the chief executive was a woman: then all the women in the boardroom were deeply engaged in both setting strategy and contributing to board decisions.

One of the difficulties in research into gender difference in leadership is simply that it is hard to quantify. Also, it often corresponds to perceptions of gender stereotypes. We need more examples of gender-balanced boards – and especially of boards with three or more women executive directors – to be able to analyse how much gender itself makes a difference.

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