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Does it matter how many women sit on corporate boards?

Another day, another report bewailing the number of women on corporate boards of directors. According to a tally released on Tuesday by Catalyst, a nonprofit group that focuses on women in the workplace, 27 percent of new appointments to the boards of companies listed on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index in 2015 went to women. That boosted to 20 percent the total share of women serving as directors at S&P 500 companies.

Catalyst gloomily describes these findings as “dismal.” The group’s president, Deborah Gillis, laments that “men continue to be overrepresented, holding more than their fair share of board seats and, in some cases, all the board seats.”

Professional pessimists can always be counted on to find the clouds in a clearing sky, especially when it draws media attention. Catalyst’s annual census of women on corporate boards routinely generates a bumper crop of headlines about how little headway has been made in diversifying boardrooms by sex. But is “dismal” really the right word for the advance of women onto boards of directors?


In 2015, according to Catalyst, only 2.8 percent of S&P 500 companies, just 14, had no women on their boards. One decade earlier, those numbers were more than four times as large: Twelve percent of the S&P 500 — 60 companies — had all-male corporate boards in 2005. And the shift is accelerating. As of this week, the number of corporations on the S&P Index with no female directors is down to eight.

Continuity and stability tend to be highly valued in the makeup of corporate boards. Less than 10 percent of directors’ seats turn over in a typical year. So the fact that one-fifth of all board members at the nation’s biggest companies are women — a percentage that keeps rising, slowly but steadily — signifies not a persistent and inflexible “glass ceiling,” but the vanishing of a cultural hurdle that was once as common as hoop skirts and dance cards.

To some gender warriors, of course, the situation will remain “dismal” until the share of women on corporate boards matches the share of women in the population. Gillis’s complaint that men have more than their “fair share” of board seats reflects the fallacy that the sexes would be equally represented in institutions and occupations if only discrimination, whether overt or institutional, weren’t in the way.


But it’s no more logical to expect parity between men and women in boardrooms than to expect it in professional athletics (where men tend to earn far more than women), or in the awarding of college degrees (where women outperform men). Notable gender disparities exist in everything from imprisoned criminals (overwhelmingly men) to single home buyers (overwhelmingly women). Obviously there was a time when blatant sexism and outrageous double standards made it all but impossible for women to climb the corporate ladder. In 2016, however, women run some of the nation’s largest and most influential companies — General Motors, IBM, PepsiCo, Xerox. It is hard to make a convincing case that an entrenched and toxic patriarchy is blackballing women from the ranks of the business world’s elite.

Today, any company that would exclude a highly talented woman from its top ranks out of pigheaded male chauvinism would only be harming itself. It would be putting itself at a disadvantage to any competitor shrewd enough to recognize and embrace the excluded executive’s value. Indeed, many gender-diversity advocates now make their case not just in the language of fairness, but in terms of profitability.

In 2012, for example, Morgan Stanley launched an investment fund — Parity Portfolio — which restricts its holdings to corporations with at least three women on their corporate boards. “Extensive research . . . reveals a correlation between gender diversity on corporate boards and company financial strength,” the fund’s strategy statement says. The evidence of that relationship, Parity Portfolio’s cocreator Eve Ellis told The Wall Street Journal, should be too clear for any company to ignore: “More diverse boards have stronger financials.”


If she’s right, her fund will have no trouble attracting investors and keeping them happy. But the evidence that more female board members means higher corporate profits is murky at best.

In a recent paper for the Journal of Social Issues, Northwestern University professor Alice Eagly analyzed the many studies that test whether more women directors can be linked to a stronger bottom line. What she found was that the boldest claims of a connection were usually based on the “least informative studies, which are those containing only simple group comparisons.” Other papers, more academically rigorous, found neutral or even negative correlations between gender diversity and financial performance. Either way, what no study has managed to nail down is causation. It may be that more women are named to boards of companies that are already more successful — that their appointment, in other words, is a result of financial strength, not a cause.

At all events, it trivializes gender equality, in the corporate world or anywhere else, to be reduced to nothing but a body count. What should concern those who value male-female diversity is not whether 20 percent or 40 percent or 60 percent of board members are women, but whether 100 percent of women with the drive, aptitude, and skill to be corporate executives can pursue that goal on the same basis as men with similar drive, aptitude, and skill. In the aggregate, women may be less likely to set their sights on the corporate boardroom or CEO’s corner office. So what? All that matters is that arbitrary gender restrictions not hold back individuals who are drawn to a career in business leadership — and that arbitrary gender quotas not warp the judgment of those who are responsible for directing America’s corporations.


Jeff Jacoby can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.