Gender Equality in Corporate Boards

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At a time when we are exposed to a risk of slowing economic growth and rising unemployment in the wake of the public debt crisis, we cannot ignore the potential of half the population.” Viviane Reding, vice president of the European Commission and European Commissioner for Justice and Françoise Grossetête, European Parliament member from France.


Data and Country Focus

European Union

Women on corporate boards in the EU.jpg


Norway was the first country to implement a 40% quota of women on boards (2003) with severe sanctions. Following this reform, the share of women on corporate boards increased from 25 percent in 2004 to 42 percent in 2009.[1]


Spain followed the Norwegian example in 2007 by adopting a similar law (goal of 40% of women on corporate boards in 2015). As a result, the participation of women on boards has risen from 4 percent in 2006 to 10 percent in 2010.[1]


A law passed in March 2010 requires Icelandic companies with more than 50 employees to have at least 40% of both gender represented on their boards by September 2013.[2]


In January 2010, a law was passed requiring French firms of more than 500 employees to reach a quota of 20% of women on corporate boards within three years and of 40% by 2017. In October 2010, about one third of the concerned third reached the 20% goal, but the average was 7%.[3]


United States

Factors affecting the proportion of women on corporate boards

Several factors are usually considered to affect the access of women to corporate boards. Among them, Siri Terjesen and Val Singh[5] identify:

  1.  Female employees to lack a workplace role-model (as it is easier to identify with someone from the same gender)
  2. Lack of homosocial reproduction. It is believed that a woman will be more likely to hire another woman and vice versa, for the simple reason that people tend to prefer working with people similar to them, because they can understand and predict their behavior . This homosocial reproduction is especially true in corporate relations between men and women.[6]

Benefits of the presence of women in corporate boards

One of the questions always at the forefront of the debates about gender equality consist of wondering whether women have to be considered as different than men (having their own qualities) or whether they have to be considered as equal to men (and granted equality as a consequence of this mentality). Siri Terjesen and Val Singh posit that the presence of women on boards of directors is beneficial due to their specific qualities.[5] Among these qualities, they identify:

Judith B. Rosener, also underlines that women are useful on corporate boards because they bring new ideas, but above all, they bring a new way of seeing things. Because of their different background, women tend to see the problems and their respective solution differently. Moreover, thanks to their quality as “outsiders”, they do not hesitate to ask questions as much as men might.[6]

Better results?

A Finnish study found that firms with a female CEO or with corporate boards composed of at least half of women have better results than the others:

Profitability differences between companies led by women and men.jpg

These sorts of results were confirmed by a study by the consulting firm McKinsey, showing that the operating income of companies with majority of women on their boards is 56 percent higher than that of businesses with exclusively male boards of directors.[9]

Financial performance with women at the top.jpg

How to obtain gender equality on corporate boards?

What to do in firms?

The consulting firm McKinsey has laid out four criteria that create a favorable atmosphere for the development of gender equality in a firm:

        1. Create transparency by implementing gender diversity indicators

Gender diversity indicators are essential to evaluate the depth of the gender gap in the firm and a way of setting the objectives to reach. It is therefore necessary to take into consideration:

However, McKinsey reject the use of quotas.

        2. Implement measures to facilitate the work-life balance

        3.  Adapt the human resources management process 

For instance, companies generally focus their hiring process of high potential managers on persons between the age of 28 and 35. To prevent women from being prejudiced by this criteria, McKinsey suggests to establish more flexible criteria, more focused on the number of years of service in the company. The main idea here is that firms have to abandon their traditional selection processes and adopt more flexible ones, in order to adapt to the market.

        4. Help women master the dominant codes, nurture their ambition 

This consists in coaching, network-building and mentoring program in order to allow women to be aware of their full potential and of the different opportunities that are offered in the firm.

Women, now it’s your turn!

Gender equality in boards of directors necessarily implies that companies are aware of the potential represented by women. But more importantly, women themselves have to stop censuring their inner goals. It is now their turn to take action to get seats on company boards. Here are some advice given by Stepheny Overman:[10]

20-first's Global Gender Balance Scorecard 2012: Focus on Natural Resources Industry

Access the 2012 Gender Balance Scorecard.

See also

Special Focus : Women, leadership and quotas

Wage Gaps Between Men and Women

Motherhood + Career = Success?

Modern Women and the Challenges of Motherhood


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Viviane Reding and Françoise Grossetête, “Quotas for Women on Corporate Boards: Why not?” in Les Echos, March 02, 2011.
  2. 2.0 2.1 European Women’s Lobby response to the European Commission’s Green Paper “Corporate governance in financial institutions and remuneration policies”
  3. «"Lady boom dans les conseils d’administration des entreprises cotées" on, October 20, 2010.
  4. 2010 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board Directors
  5. 5.0 5.1 Siri Terjesen and Val Singh, “Female Presence on Corporate Boards: A Multicountry study of Environmental Context” in Journal of Business Ethics, 2008.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Jody Rosener, « Women on Corporate Boards Makes Good Business Sense » on, April 02, 2009.
  7. Catherine M. Daily, S. Trevis Certo, Dan R. Dalton, "A Decade of Corporate Women: Some Progress in the Boardroom, None in the Executive Suite" in Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Jan. 1999).
  8. Annu Kotiranta, Alle Kovalained, Petri Rouvinen, “Female Leadership and Firm Profitability”, Eva Analysis, September 24 2007.
  9. « Women Matter - Gender diversity, a corporate performance driver”, study by McKinsey &Company (2007).
  10. Stephenie Overman, « How can more women land sports on company boards ?” on, March 11, 2011.
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