Gender parity on boards is showing signs of improvement. But having a seat at the table is just the first step; exerting influence around high-stakes decisions is vital, too. To better understand how women board members do this, researchers interviewed 43 women directors at U.S. companies.
The road to gender parity on corporate boards has been a long one, but there are signs of progress. In 2022, for instance, 45% of new Fortune 500 board appointees were women and the percentage of women on these boards had risen to almost 30%.
Yet, the point of being a director is not simply to be in the room. To successfully advise top management teams on key decisions and avenues for strategic change, while ensuring broad institutional oversight, women board directors must exert significant influence during board discussions. Given that gender-based barriers persist, how do women directors navigate these board discussions to ultimately shape their outcomes?
Our research delves into this question. In total, we interviewed 43 current women directors of U.S. publicly traded companies between 2018 and 2019. Our findings indicate that unless these women monitored how and when they spoke, they perceived backlash from other directors. This backlash included being labeled as cold or incompetent, which lessened their ability to influence board decision-making processes. The root cause of these perceptions is that women are expected to demonstrate both stereotypical masculine traits, such as directness and competence, while also presenting feminine qualities, including warmth and empathy toward others.
Walking a fine line between expressing competence and warmth on corporate boards presented unique challenges for the women we interviewed. Unlike working inside of a company, boards meet infrequently, all decisions are high stakes, and the breadth of knowledge needed to advise at the board level supersede one person’s level of expertise. This context required our participants to engage in specific participation tactics to optimally navigate gender-based expectations.
Our analysis of interview transcripts identified six tactics that were particularly important: asking, connecting, asserting, qualifying, waiting, and checking. When our participants matched these tactics with their specific aims, they perceived greater effectiveness and less backlash. Though implementing these tactics allowed our participants to meet their goals as directors, walking a fine line did not come without a cost.
The Six Participation Tactics on Boards
Below is an outline of each tactic, how and when directors say they use it, where it falls on the warmth-competence line, and its benefits and downsides.
Asking involves voicing ideas in the form of questions and/or using a polite or soft tone to present ideas or express opposing views. One participant shared why the asking tactic works for her: “It’s not [that] I challenge them. I just ask them … what would be the downside of that? … Is there another possibility? Or, what about if we did this? I always try to come from a positive side and just ask for more information…. Even if they [have] a strong personality, they’re usually okay to tell you more information. [Because] it’s not like you’re disagreeing with them.”
Connecting includes getting to know other board members by strategically developing bonds and sharing information about their nonwork or personal life. For example, one participant talked about how they get to “know things about people” through social interaction, including “where they like to travel” and “if they have children.” Another participant shared that connecting helped her disagree, “There is a need to build those [relationships] so then you can be candid and honest with each other” and have “the ability to agree and disagree … and feel comfortable in bringing candid discussions [forward].”
Both of these tactics fall on the “warmth” side of the warmth-competence line. They were typically used by our participants to diversify conversations on boards, allowing the women to disagree with the current direction of the conversation without being perceived as being disagreeable. Our participants could gather more information and feel comfortable to make the best decision without violating expectations for their gender. However, our participants also had to beat around the bush to get their concerns heard and building relationships takes time, which is a scarce resource for board members.
Asserting refers to expressing opinions and thoughts directly or strongly and with confidence. One participant discussed how she shared information in one of her areas of expertise (branding): “I would not hold back and share what I think.” Another participant argued, “[Women] should … pipe up on [their expertise]. … They should feel very confident to speak their mind.”
Qualifying is publicly acknowledging expertise and/or acquiring sufficient skills, knowledge, and credentials to execute their director role. For example, women would refer to their executive roles when making arguments, like, “I was a chief risk officer. … I’m not worried about this [topic].”
Asserting and qualifying fall on the “competence” side of the warmth-competence line and served to amplify women’s expertise on specific topics. “I just used my knowledge … to add some more flavor to my story,” one participant told us, referring to the perspective she was sharing with the board. “It’s hard to argue with common sense if you could present the common sense in a compelling way.” She also shared that this is particularly necessary when dealing with her male peers. “I think this is true in general dealing with men…the last thing that is going to appeal to them is an emotional, moral [argument], they just shut down when you go that way. … I think you have to be much more objective and much more rational.”
The benefit of this approach includes women directors boosting their expertise and exerting influence. The downside is they are limited to using these tactics in their areas of expertise. When they used these tactics in other areas or topics, they were more likely to perceive backlash. Additionally, asserting could come across as rude and inconsiderate, and qualifying could signal a lack of confidence.
Waiting is delaying expression of views through listening and observing the environment before speaking. One participant shared, “I like to wait to listen and hear others’ opinions and draw out others’ opinions. I know I can be a judgmental person, so I try to hold off from making judgments too soon and listen to my other board members.”
Checking involves conferring with other directors outside of a board meeting — during breaks and informal gatherings, and through offline communication, sidebars, and backchannels. “At the dinners I would catch them and say, hey you mentioned [something] at the board meeting,” one participant shared. “Could you help me appreciate your point?”
These final two tactics fall in the middle of the warmth-competence line; hybrids of sorts to navigate opposing gender-based expectations simultaneously. They are also indirect and subtle, with the women board members discretely and privately addressing issues of concern or questions. For instance, rather than stopping the meeting to clarify acronyms, one woman shared that she would “scribble a note to your fellow board member and say, ‘What on earth does ABC mean?’ Or, a little sidebar, and say, ‘Who’s this guy? I think I know him, but I don’t remember his name’… it’s helpful to have somebody next to you who’s not judging and happy to do some stuff like that.”
The benefit of these tactics is that women directors can gain knowledge of a board’s decision-making norms when its culture isn’t very inclusive, or when new board members did not receive an orientation. The downside, however, is that these tactics take time and may impede women directors from expressing their views in the moment. Additionally, use of these tactics may be associated with perceptions of lower confidence or competence for waiting, or as politicking for checking.
Implications for Diversifying Boards
While many of the women we interviewed achieved success in their role as a board director, a troubling outcome of our work is that they must still adapt to gendered expectations. This reality has several implications. It might fuel women’s resistance to taking on advisory positions and help explain the disproportionate levels of burnout women leaders experience from having to constantly monitor their behavior. It also might contribute to higher turnover among women in advisory positions, which could signal women “opting-out” of leadership opportunities and, in turn, perpetuate gender stereotypes, reproduce gender inequality on boards, and produce potential blind spots in institutional governance and oversight.
The fact that women had to still worry about walking the warmth-competence fine line even after ascending above the glass ceiling suggests that the nature of corporate boards makes it uniquely challenging to navigate the double bind and minimize backlash. The limited time in board meetings and the requirement to have a broad knowledge base seems to increase the challenges women face as a numerical minority on boards.
But given the advantages of diverse perspectives and experiences, the participation of women on boards should remain a priority for corporations. To help accomplish this, we recommend the following strategies for companies.
Take a holistic approach to board appointments.
The selection criteria for board directors often excludes qualified women. Directors are typically current or former CEOs, or people who have years of experience at the executive level, which can exclude women given the leadership gaps that persist inside of companies. Further, research suggests women’s presence on boards depends on company visibility rather than women’s actual abilities and expertise.
Instead of focusing on these two factors, nominating governance committees should take a holistic approach and think about the skills they desire on their board in addition to the roles potential directors might have. Because there is a shortage of women with CEO experience, companies would do well by broadening their criteria to consider ability and expertise that falls outside of the CEO title.
Widen the acceptable range for how individuals participate on boards.
Our findings suggest organizations can ensure the full participation of all their directors by considering boardroom culture and participation. Are new members encouraged to speak at their first meeting on the board? Is everyone’s vote weighed equally? How open is the board chair to airing dissenting opinions? Are decisions taken in the board room or on the golf course? Without asking these questions, companies that increase the number of women directors, but do not change their shared assumptions of how to participate, will end up with seasoned women who do not participate fully in the boardroom. A greater acceptance for the different ways individuals express themselves can help organizations leverage minority views and encourage the positive benefits of diversity in decision-making and governance.
Develop clear onboarding processes.
Given that boards meet infrequently to discuss highly sensitive and high-risk company decisions, a structured onboarding process will help prepare new directors to assume their roles. Our research suggests that current onboarding processes, when there were formal ones, centered only around the services and products the company offered. Onboarding that explains the board culture and expectations could also help directors know how and when to contribute, which establishes the value they bring to the board from the start. Understanding participation norms will be particularly helpful for traditionally underrepresented directors to gain credibility and nominations to serve on additional boards. Board members that serve on more than one board have additional avenues for knowledge and information that can become resources to help improve the focal organization’s performance.
Facilitate support and connections.
Women directors do not have to navigate boardroom dynamics alone. Allies can amplify women directors’ voice or actively solicit their input on matters. Board chairs are also well positioned to provide feedback and impart lessons on how to influence specific board members. These chairs might also consider better integrating women directors into their own social networks, encouraging them to attend industry-wide conferences to increase their visibility, and/or join associations that facilitate connections with potential other allies.
. . .
Gender-based barriers remain at play in the boardroom, creating additional work for women directors who must walk the fine line between displaying warmth and competence. Our research shows that it is up to each company and their board members to ease the burden on how women directors participate and influence board decisions. That way, we can move one step closer to gender parity in corporate governance.
Copyright 2023 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.
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