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Musical Chairs: Gender Diversity on U.S. Corporate Boards

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Fifty years ago it was nearly impossible to find women in executive leadership positions. Now, nearly half of the labor force is female. 51 percent of management and professional occupations are held by women. Yet, women hold only about 17 percent of corporate board seats. Despite positive changes over the years and rhetoric supporting the advancement of women in business leadership roles, over the last decade, there is meager evidence of significant progress in U.S. corporate boardrooms.

A woman is most likely to be appointed to a corporate board when a fellow woman departs, according to a forthcoming study in the Industrial Labor Relations Review. This “gender-matching” tendency can thwart efforts to diversify the board room, because the actual composition of the board is difficult to change.

The study, “Gender Diversity on U.S. Corporate Boards: Are We Running in Place?,” is authored by Catherine Tinsley, a professor of management at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business and faculty director of the Georgetown University Women’s Leadership Institute, with co-authors James Wade of George Washington University, Brian G.M. Main of University of Edinburgh, and Charles A. O’Reilly of Stanford University. To move the needle on gender parity in the board room, the study suggests that the number of women in the candidate pool needs to be increased.

“Despite repeated calls for more gender parity on corporate boards, the representation of women in boardrooms has increased only at a very slow rate over the past 20 years,” Tinsley said.

The study builds on prior work that examined 300 Fortune 500 firms in the 1990s and found when an individual leaves the board, his or her replacement is more likely to be the same gender. This effect is even stronger when a female departs. Tinsley and her colleagues sampled 10 times as many firms and demonstrated that this pattern persists today, even in the face of increased gender parity rhetoric.


“Our data suggests there tends to be ‘women’s spots’ on the board, and once they are filled there is little motivation to search for other female candidates. This can explain why it is has been so difficult to see change over the years,” Tinsley said.

Many companies and directors likely care about promoting gender diversity in today’s society, but many may fear that any change can disrupt the cordial relations among board members already in place. Therefore, gender-matching is a safe way of addressing gender diversity without taking too much risk.  

This “gender-matching” tendency often is subconscious, Tinsley said. In fact, most people say that gender is significantly less important than other criteria in the board selection process. Rather than actual gender blindness, however, the study shows that the gender of the departing board member significantly influences the gender of the replacement, even when other criteria are taken into account in their modeling of candidate selection. Not surprisingly, too, as the percentage of women on a board increases, the chances of a female appointment declines, further suggesting that a firm’s appetite for female board members is limited.

The research found one solution to greater gender equality in the board room lies in including proportionally more women the candidate pool. The more women in the candidate pool, the more likely a woman will be selected to fill the vacant position.

To answer the calls for diversity in boardrooms, Tinsley and her co-authors found that more needs to be done to offset the subconscious effect of gender-matching.

“We tested whether or not increasing people’s awareness and concern for gender diversity increased their propensity to select a female candidate. It did not,” Tinsley said. “The only thing that worked was to include more female candidates. Thus, our work underscores the importance of creating a pipeline of talented women in the workplace who could be in that candidate pool in the future.”

Tinsley continued, “Today’s managers are tomorrow’s CEOs and board members; therefore, companies should also be concerned about how many women seem to exit the workforce below the C-suite.”