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Why Are Corporate Boardrooms Still Overwhelmingly Male?

Feb 22, 2017
World Class Faculty & Research

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SMITH BRAIN TRUST – How close are the Fortune 500 companies to achieving gender equality on their corporate boards? They've got a long way to go, baby.

The boardrooms of the Fortune 500 continue to be overwhelmingly male, with women holding only 20 percent of all board seats, according to the 2016 Board Diversity Census, published Feb. 6, 2017, from the Alliance for Board Diversity in partnership with Deloitte.

Scholars tend to blame the gap on some combination of two factors: Workplace biases or individual choices of women, who may prioritize family above career. Waverly Ding, a management professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, and two co-authors consider both theories but find strong evidence for only one in a study published in the Academy of Management Journal.

"The preponderance of evidence in this article supports demand-side theories," they write, referring to the workplace biases that limit growth opportunities for women compared to men.

Rather than studying corporate board dynamics – a challenge considering the difficulty of defining the candidate pool – the authors focus on the scientific advisory boards of biotechnology companies. These invitation-only positions provide advantages for study because seats typically go to university scientists – a finite pool of qualified candidates with publicly available career histories.

Women scientists have fewer patents, papers and citations at each career stage than men. But even after controlling for these variables, along with other factors like university prestige, Ding and her co-authors find that male scientists are almost twice as likely to receive advisory board invitations.

The phones simply don't ring for equally qualified and motivated women scientists. "We believe that policy interventions are most likely to succeed if they are directed toward the conditions that affect perceptions of women's qualifications to hold senior corporate roles," the authors conclude, "especially in the eyes of the decision makers who allocate such opportunities."

Read more: Ding, Waverly W., Fiona Murray, Toby E. Stuart. 2013. "From Bench to Board: Gender Differences in University Scientists' Participation in Corporate Scientific Advisory Boards." Academy of Management Journal 56(5): 1443-1464.

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business 

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty masters, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.