CEOs say how they got to gender parity on their boards



When interviewing for board positions, CEOs should ensure there are at least two women on the shortlist to address unconscious bias in favour of the status quo, according to a study in the Harvard Business Review.

The study by Stefanie K Johnson from the University of Colorado and Kimberley Davis from management consultancy firm Teneo is based on interviews with CEOs who have reached gender parity on their boards. They said most CEOs and board members fail to take the actions needed to increase gender diversity because of fear of change or risk of failure. The researchers said this might be due to a fear of dissenting opinions.

Interviewees also described how CEOs may fear appointing directors whom they don’t know personally. Many described concerns about disrupting good relationships among board members by bringing in someone new or different.

The CEOs also said that a major impediment to gender parity on the board is the focus on electing C-suite-level board directors. This makes it much easier to appoint male board members. The CEOs interviewed reported that C-suite experience should not be a prerequisite for board directors.

Another obstacle to increasing diversity on boards, according to the CEOs interviewed, was an over-reliance on the idea that boards must select “the best person for the job”. The researchers says that “baked into this assumption seemed to be the idea that recruiting women would mean lowering their standards”. They say: “It seems that the notion of meritocracy has become synonymous with maintaining the status quo. But, as the interviewees noted, boards are certainly not selecting the best person for the job if they are only recruiting from their small, existing networks.”

There was also concern that others might think the women chosen for their board were selected on the basis of their gender.

The CEOs felt that any change had to be intentional. The researchers say the following can help:

  • Take a promotion focus when it comes to diversity, focusing on the benefits of diversity and be proactive in extending your personal networks to include more women and minorities.
  • Look for major disruptions in the corporate board (e.g., mergers, going public, etc.) as an opportunity to increase women. In the absence of major disruptions, the researchers say CEOs might encourage annual reviews of board members as a way of bringing in new perspectives.
  • Have at least two women on the shortlist. The researchers say: “When there is only one woman, she’s likely to be viewed as a token, which can amplify status quo bias and undercut her chance of being selected. When there are two women in the running, our research shows the status quo bias seems to break down.”

Some of the CEOs interviewed went further, saying they would interview all of the women finalists before interviewing any of the men for an open board seat. They said that the status quo bias is so strong they said that if a man were interviewed first, the board would prefer to hire him over any of the women.

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