The Women Who Become Board Members

Harvard Business Review

An interview with Boris Groysberg and Deborah Bell, authors of the article Dysfunction in the Boardroom.

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SARAH GREEN: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I'm Sarah Green. I'm here today with Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg and Deborah Bell, a researcher of organizational behavior. Thank you both so much for joining us today.

BORIS GROYSBERG: Thank you for having us.

DEBORAH BELL: Thank you. Yes.

SARAH GREEN: So today, I wanted to talk a little bit about the interesting findings that you came up with when you guys were looking at the women who become board members. And sort of what comprises that group and what sets them apart from men, what they have in common with male board members, and how they're different. One of the things that surprised me in your findings, given the state of these statistics, is that a lot of the male board directors didn't think that their female peers faced any additional hurdles. Why do you think that is?

BORIS GROYSBERG: Well I think that's a great question. Let me just give you-- and maybe that's going to be helpful-- just a little bit of a background for this research project because it's going to shed some light on your question as well as the answer. Deborah and I, we got really interested in this and also in collaboration with WCD, it's a Women Corporate Director and [INAUDIBLE] struggles just to kind of understand why do we have this persistent gender gap at the highest level? And that's basically going to [INAUDIBLE] the boards.

And one of the things that we really wanted-- in our 2010 study, we actually sample a lot more on female board directors to understand them better, and we kind of [INAUDIBLE] compared them to their male counterparts. And now we have done it for a couple of years.

And some of the surprises that kind of generated by the survey and the analysis is the disconnect between what we call admit and reality. There is kind of this belief that the women that actually get on boards usually come through support functions and usually a lot more that they're under qualified and so on.

And what we found is that, in many cases, they're as qualified as men. And in some cases, why they have to be more qualified. And there is actually a name for a woman who make it into senior ranks and who make it on boards, many call them survivors because by the time they navigate 3,074 institutional barriers that still exist in many organizations and many boards, those who actually survive in a number of cases just have to be better than men.

DEBORAH BELL: Yes. And that's why the other disconnect was especially surprising. This idea that women continually had to reestablish their credentials, improve themselves. We're talking about women who have vast amounts of experience. These women are superstars. And to think that they're in situations where their qualifications are being questioned is really surprising.

SARAH GREEN: It did seem like the interviews that you're following up on the survey with may shed some light on this. But it did strike me that men and women saw the situation very differently. Is that also something that struck you?

DEBORAH BELL: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I would think we would say that is one of the most powerful findings of this analysis and this piece, are the two disconnects we've already spoken about between the perception of qualifications with these very highly, highly qualified accomplished women and they're not necessarily perceived that way. And also the disconnect between being heard, and men not realizing that they may be creating these hostile environments.

BORIS GROYSBERG: Right. I think if we start from maybe what we think one of the most interesting insights from our survey is, when you ask men and women, why is it that in the 21st century the percentage of women on boards is still low teens? It's interesting, right? When you ask male board members, they basically say we cannot find enough qualified women to be on boards. And when you ask female board members, they basically say, well there were so many barriers, biases, and other things from boards to nominating committees and on and on that it's just kind of basically almost impossible to break into the networks and actually get on boards. Two different perspectives basically on the same issue.

And it's interesting, and I think we point this out in the article and as well as a few other pieces that we've done together, is it's interesting. It's kind of hard to swallow the explanation that in 2013, given that we are only talking about board seats that become available, whatever the hundreds of those board seats are, in the great United States of America-- and even if you don't think about United States-- many of our boards of large companies are looking for a global board members, right? Is that really the case? That in 2013, we cannot find 300, 400 qualified women to sit on boards?

So I think that explanation just doesn't seem to be kind of connecting with true reality of what's really going on in 2013. So I think we are, from our work and from our interviews and other things, we're finding that [INAUDIBLE] barriers, the biases kind of explanation is much, much more prevalent. In fact, in one of the things that Deborah and I found was that in many, many, many cases, the way that men and women get on boards is through existing networks. And networks are pretty sticky, right? They are like clubs.

And I think the majority of appointments still going through the traditional networks. It's basically who you know. And if that's the way we put new board members on boards, then I think in some ways it's not surprising that we had such a difficult time moving the percentage of women on boards. Feels like every decade when we move it by two percentage points we're celebrating this. And part of that lack of success is because the way the board members get appointed is actually a problem in itself.

And then how we actually deal with the board dynamics, and how do we actually deal with creating vacancies, and I use that kind of very loosely, is how do we actually get under performing board members out? Because if somebody is not doing his or her job as a board member, that person probably should be doing something else. If based on a survey we find that many boards are actually not doing a great job getting their under performing board members out.

DEBORAH BELL: Yes, absolutely. We have data and we're going to be doing more analysis on boards that have term limits and retirement ages. That is a way to create vacancies. That is a way to move people out.

And one other thing, just to go back to your original question, we talked a little bit in the article about far more men than women pointed to a lack of experience in industry knowledge, that women have are lacking in this area. And it's interesting that, first off we found that they weren't, but also that men tended to view inexperience and there's a difference between inexperience and qualifications. But men tended to view inexperience as this fixed disqualifying trait, whereas women saw it as something that would change. It's dynamic. You're inexperienced whenever you begin something new and you learn.

It's also worth pointing out that anybody, whether it's a man or a woman, in their very first board seat could be considered inexperienced. There's another, I think, disconnect cognitive perceptive disconnect there, lumping together inexperienced with being qualified when they are two different things.

SARAH GREEN: That's a good point. It does seem that there's a bit of an experience trap there. It's kind of a catch-22. It's like, well if you haven't been on a board then therefore you're not qualified to be on a board. There is something a little circular going on there it sounds like.

So I wanted to ask you about quotas specifically because I know that in some other countries there are quotas for the number of women you need to have on your board. I think that's a controversial idea in America but it's not controversial everywhere. So did you find anything interesting about either support for quotas or under what circumstances that approach does work?

BORIS GROYSBERG: Well I think we were careful in our article. And so let me tell me to be very direct and say I think more research and more study is actually needed to figure out are quotas effective or ineffective.

I think the other thing is that we just want to point out-- and this is kind of like building on research that's done by two colleague of ours, Robyn Healy and David Thomas-- what they found in an HBR article some years ago is that we basically have to move from this question of does diversity have impact on performance to under what conditions would we expect diversity to have impact on performance? And what they found is that organizations basically have this three perspectives. One is we want diversity because it's there and we don't want to discriminate. Two is that we want diversity because it gives us access and legitimacy. And three is that we want diversity because it's giving us learning and integration.

And you get a lot more positive effects on the third one then you actually get on fairness or access and legitimacy It's not that both are not important, but it's like you're not leveraging diversity fully. If we think about quotas, and kind of say look, let's make sure that the percentage of women on boards is a certain number, I think it's great. But what I really want to ask the question is, what really happens on the board.

And I think Deb and I, we talked about this in the article is that you can have the most talented people with diverse backgrounds and we're talking about race, nationality, religion, skills, you can think of diversity in so many different ways, they get on this board and basically the board dynamics will kill all the type of diversity they bring with them.

SARAH GREEN: So how do you avoid that?

DEBORAH BELL: This a question of what we would call integration. It's one thing, as Boris was saying, to bring on some great new diverse board members, but then you just don't bring them on, you have to integrate them. You have to onboard them successfully. And I can tell you from many interviews-- and this is anecdotal at this point-- women and other diverse candidate have said, it's great but then I had 30 minutes with the chair and that was my onboarding integration. And I came on to a board where these eight people have been working together for 20 years. And this scenario happens over and over again.

So boards have to think mindfully and strategically about onboarding processes. How do we integrate and actually make this a real team? And there are different strategies that boards had used to success. Actually talking about these things, having meetings, having more opportunities for social events such as dinners, activities, some boards travel together. They'll go to a client site, whether it be 30 miles away or across the world. And we have heard over and over again how much these types of activities build relationships, build communication, and really help with the overall integration process.

BORIS GROYSBERG: I mean, imagine you get the most talented female professional to become a board member, and in a board of eight she's the only one and male counterparts on a board actually been together for a long period of time. They go and on one of those weekends play great game of golf in which they discuss a number of really important decisions that are going to be facing during the next board meeting that's coming up right after they finish playing golf. And you come into this board meeting and you have basically six or seven people who already made a decision. And you have one person who actually completely comes from outside and anticipate that there's going to be debate when there is actually no debate.

And I'm picking this as an extreme. And kind of interesting, people ask like we pick golf, it's just one of the mechanisms, one of the barriers, there are so many others. The examples of actually speaking up at the board meeting and actually not being heard. We have this example in an article from a board member. And she's basically saying, I was asked tough questions in the board meeting and eventually I was basically asked not to say anything.

Or you have dynamics in which the female board member would say x and then a male board member would repeat the x and the chair would say, what a great idea, John. All those things kind of add up. And what they really basically accumulate into this process that's not really leveraging diversity well and a process that's not fully inclusive. You can have great inputs to the boards and a great input could be talented people and information that's basically getting distributed on time and so on, but what really happens around that table, the relationships, the process, who is talking to whom, who is participating, is there a conflict or there is no conflict? What do you do if you have one person who is opposing the other seven? That's really, really important.

And unfortunately, most boards, in our experience, are not really fully leveraging diversity. So even if we're actually going to get the high representations of any type of diversity on the board, I think it still raises this question, how do boards leverage diversity? And that's the next stage. What are the processes? What are the best practices? What are the things they have to put in place so people are comfortable speaking up? Diversity of opinions-- and it comes from all different directions-- can actually be truly leveraged.

Because think about this, with technological changes, with globalization, with generational changes, with many, many other changes in the 21st century, if the boards won't be able to do that, I think over time they will become less and less effective and actually be more and more disconnected with the reality of the business and the environment.

SARAH GREEN: Great. I know there's a lot more in the article and I do hope that people will go online and check it out because some of the research and numbers you guys dug up was just fascinating. But thank you both so much for joining us today.

BORIS GROYSBERG: Thank you for having us.

DEBORAH BELL: Thank you very much, Sarah.

SARAH GREEN: That was Harvard Business School's Boris Groysberg and Deborah Bell. Their article, "Dysfunction in the Boardroom" is on HBR.org.

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