Now a new study prepared by Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business and the Wellesley Centers for Women concludes that corporations benefit from the presence of women on the Board of Directors in Critical Mass on Corporate Boards: Why Three or More Women Enhance Governance.
(for the same reasons noted below, we also make pretty darn good mediators and settlement officers)
We find that women do make a difference in the boardroom. Women bring a collaborative leadership style that benefits boardroom dynamics by increasing the amount of listening, social support, and win-win problem-solving. Although women are often collaborative leaders, they do not shy away from controversial issues. Many of our informants believe that women are more likely than men to ask tough questions and demand direct and detailed answers. Women also bring new issues and perspectives to the table, broadening the content of boardroom discussions to include the perspectives of multiple stakeholders. Women of color add perspectives that broaden boardroom discussions even further.
How Many Women Constitute a Critical Mass on a Corporate Board?
The number of women on a board makes a difference. While a lone woman can and often does make substantial contributions, and two women are generally more powerful than one, increasing the number of women to three or more enhances the likelihood that women’s voices and ideas are heard and that boardroom dynamics change substantially. Women who have served alone and those who have observed the situation report experiences of lone women not being listened to, being excluded from socializing and even from some decision-making discussions, being made to feel their views represent a “woman’s point of view,” and being subject to inappropriate behaviors that indicate male directors notice their gender more than their individual contributions.
Adding a second woman clearly helps. When two women sit on a board, they tend to feel more comfortable than one does alone. Each woman can assure that the other is heard, not always by agreeing with her, but rather, by picking up on the topics she raises and encouraging the group to process them fully. Two women together can develop strategies for raising difficult and controversial issues in a way that makes other board members pay attention. But with two women, women and men are still aware of gender in ways that can keep the women from working together as effectively as they might, and the men from benefiting from their contributions.
The magic seems to occur when three or more women serve on a board together. Suddenly having women in the room becomes a normal state of affairs. No longer does any one woman represent the “woman’s point of view,” because the women express different views and often disagree with each other. Women start being treated as individuals with different personalities, styles, and interests. Women’s tendencies to be more collaborative but also to be more active in asking questions and raising different issues start to become the boardroom norm. We find that having three or more women on a board can create a critical mass where women are no longer seen as outsiders and are able to influence the content and process of board discussions more substantially.
Thanks to commercial arbitrator and mediator Deborah Rothman for circulating this report among her professional women friends!