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Women on Boards: A Battle for Legitimacy

How organizations account for female board membership can end up marginalizing the very people they want to champion

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared that he would form Canada’s first gender balanced cabinet “because it was 2015”, many lauded the move. It was time, they said, that women be allowed to see themselves as key players in governance positions.

But many were quick to criticize the notion of a quota-based cabinet, arguing that merit should be the sole driver when selecting people for high-level posts, rather than factors such gender, race, or sexual orientation.

As governments and corporations alike spearhead initiatives to increase the number of women represented on Canadian boards, the diversity-versus-meritocracy argument continues unabated.

Those who champion female inclusion, such the international non-profit Catalyst, argue that organizations whose boards include women do better financially, put more weight on corporate social responsibility, and exhibit less unethical behavior overall.  For them, diversity is key to thriving in an increasingly competitive global market.

Yet women remain underrepresented on both public and private boards in Canada and abroad. According to the 2016 Spencer Stuart Board Index, women constitute 21 percent of all S&P 500 directors, an increase from 15 percent a decade ago. This is on par with women holding board positions at Canadian stock index companies.

“Once women enter the boardroom, they still face some stereotypes, perceptions, and discourses that can play both positively and negatively”

While the federal and some provincial governments have set targets for gender parity, Quebec has led the way. In May 2006, the Quebec government legislated board parity for provincial Crown corporations, and gave them until the end of 2011 to make it happen. Most have since complied; post-legislation, there was a 90 percent increase in the number women on the boards of 24 state-owned enterprises (private sector organizations continue to lag).

“Not only did we aim to attain parity, but we also sought to position women at the very heart of our government enterprises’ decision-making processes,” said the provincial government’s Minister of Finance in 2011. “Women do have a legitimate and major role to play in boards.”

It was this notion of female “legitimacy” that first intrigued Bertrand Malsch, an associate professor and Distinguished Faculty Fellow in Accounting at Smith School of Business. So he and two colleagues – Marie-Soleil Tremblay of Quebec’s École Nationale d’administration publique and Yves Gendron of  Université Laval – set out to make sense of it, particularly in light of Quebec’s legislation.

They wanted to better understand how “female director legitimacy” was constructed in the eyes of other board members and what impact the perceived legitimacy had on the success of women who did land those high-level positions.

How Legitimacy is Constructed

“Once women enter the boardroom, they still face some stereotypes, perceptions, and discourses that can play both positively and negatively,” says Malsch, explaining that just giving women access doesn’t automatically level the playing field. “It’s not the end [of the conversation], even if there’s parity.”

Over the course of their research, Malsch and his colleagues conducted 32 semi-structured interviews from July 2008 through December 2009. The majority of their subjects were board members at Quebec-based Crown corporations.

Two main views of legitimacy emerged from their interviews: one, the recognition of the distinct contributions women bring to the boardroom; and two, the avoidance of gender altogether in favour of competency.  

“In the first, it’s the sense that directors recognize the specific abilities or skills of female directors,” says Malsch, “that women are more risk averse or have a higher sense of ethics or are less conflict oriented so things run more smoothly in the boardroom.”

The perception among those who hold this view is that women make a “positive impact” in the boardroom and that their contributions are valued. This line of reasoning, however, relies heavily on popular stereotypes and clichés. “Why, for example, should we expect women to be less aggressive?” asks Malsch.

He says he was surprised by how many of his female interview subjects described themselves using these stereotypes.

Negating Gender Differences

But the second paradigm — where competencies are the only consideration for board membership and gender is ignored — is just as problematic for Malsch.

“Here again we reach a dead end because on the one hand, yes it’s nice that you aren’t hiring someone because she’s a woman but because she has the right skills; that’s a positive. But on the other hand, it negates the gender differences.”

The argument against this perspective, he says, is that it ignores the social conditions under which individuals develop their competencies, conditions that may put women at a disadvantage. It also raises questions about the very notion of ‘competency,’ an ambiguous term many have trouble defining.

“Usually people refer to themselves when describing it,” says Malsch. “They say ‘competent just like me’. Or they describe characteristics that are usually more male, like having a lot of experience in the industry. But if you won’t give women experience, they will never meet the criteria. So you define or create a competency that is not to women’s advantage.”

“The way we justify and legitimize is not neutral, and the words we use are important”

Though supportive of initiatives designed to increase the number of women on boards, Malsch says organizations must be careful about how they justify and account for female board membership. While recognizing women’s gender-specific contributions may seem positive, for example, doing so can inadvertently serve to keep women marginalized.

“The way we justify and legitimize is not neutral, and the words we use are important,” he says. “Do you have women on your board just because they are women? Or because they are seen as risk averse? Or did you not even factor gender into your decision to hire women?”

While Malsch admits their research raises many unanswered questions, he says it highlights the challenges in implementing legislation designed to bring about gender parity on governance boards.

“Even when women make it over all the hurdles and finally reach the top, they still have work to do and people will still have perceptions of them,” he says. “Our research is really an observation of how difficult it is to change things.”

Meredith Dault

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