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Women Board Directors: Zena Burgess

Characteristics of the Few Phyllis Tharenou

ABSTRACT. Appointment as a director of a Most research on women as directors of boards

company board often represents the pinnacle of a has focussed on womens under-representation on
management career. Worldwide, it has been noted boards, which was documented as early as 1977
that very few women are appointed to the boards of (Burson-Marsteller, 1977), and continues to be
directors of companies. Blame for the low numbers well documented by many researchers (Burke and
of women of company boards can be partly attributed
Mattis, 2000). Two statistics about womens board
to the widely publicized glass ceiling. However, the
very low representation of women on company boards
representation are commonly reported: the per-
requires further examination. This article reviews the centage of board seats held by women, and the
current state of womens representation on boards of percentage of organizations that have one or
directors and summarizes the reasons as to why more women on their board. Research shows a
women are needed on company boards. Given that much lower percentage of board seats held by
more women on boards are desirable, the article then women than the percentage of companies with
describes how more women could be appointed to a woman on their board (Catalyst, 1998c).
boards, and the actions that organizations and women Clearly, men occupy most board seats, leading
could take to help increase the representation of researchers to the suggestion that the few women
women. Finally, the characteristics of those women appointed to boards are tokens (Scherer, 1997;
that have succeeded in becoming members of Webber, 1996). The United States leads other
company boards are described from an international
countries, with 86% of corporations having
perspective. Unfortunately, answers to the vexing
question of whether these women have gained board
a women board member (Catalyst, 1998c),
directorships in their own right as extremely compe- compared to 42% of companies in Canada
tent managers, or whether they are mere token female (Catalyst, 1998b), 25% in the United Kingdom
appointments in a traditional male dominated culture, (Holton, 1995a), and 34% in Australia (Korn/
remains elusive. Ferry International, 1998).
Figure 1, derived from Catalyst (1998c), shows
KEY WORDS: Women Board Director charac- the difference between the percentages of
teristics Fortune 500 board seats held by women and the
numbers of Fortune 500 companies with one or
more women on their board. These companies
claim a positive trend, with the number of com-
panies with a woman board director rising from
Zena Burgess is a clinical and organizational psychologist a relatively healthy 69% in 1993 to an impres-
in Melbourne, Australia. She is employed as the Director
sive 86% in 1998. However, the trend for total
of Corporate Services (Student and Residential Services)
at Swinburne University of Technology. number of seats held is not so positive. The total
Phyllis Tharenou is the professor of organizational behavior number of seats held by women rose from a
at Monash University. Her research interests include meager 8.3% in 1993 to an under-whelming
womens advancement in management, predictors and 11.1% in 1998. Researchers disappointment
consequences of training and development, and the devel- with the number of appointments of women
opment of international careers. directors can be understood.

Journal of Business Ethics 37: 3949, 2002.

2002 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
40 Zena Burgess and Phyllis Tharenou

Figure 1.

Why women are needed on boards be associated with long term company success
and competitive advantage (Cassell, 1997), adding
Numerous arguments for the recruitment of value through womens distinctive set of skills
women nonexecutive directors have been (Green and Cassell, 1996), and creating cultures
proposed. They include: (a) increased diversity of of inclusion through a diverse workforce (Shultz,
opinions in the boardroom (Catalyst, 1995a), (b) 1995; Thomas, 1990). It has also been argued
women directors bringing strategic input to the that as women directors tend to be younger than
board (Bilimoria, 2000), (c) influence on decision their male colleagues on the board, the boards
making and leadership styles of the organization may benefit from new ideas and strategies (Burke,
(Rosener, 1990), (d) providing female role 1994; Ibrahim and Angelidis, 1994).
models and mentors (Catalyst, 1995a), (e) The Australian Report of the Industry Task
improving company image with stakeholder Force on Leadership and Management (Burton
groups, (f ) womens capabilities and availability and Ryall, 1995) suggested that women directors
for director positions (Mattis, 1997), (g) insuffi- are economically advantageous to a company.
cient competent male directors (Burke and The report claimed that well-balanced boards
Kurucz, 1998), and (h) ensuring better board- that include women directors reduce the likeli-
room behavior (Across the Board, 1994). hood of corporate failures. Homogeneous groups
Women have been found to contribute to tend to have homogenous ways of solving
governance, reducing CEO dominance due company problems: group think errors would
to their power sharing style (Bradshaw et al., be less likely to occur with a heterogeneous
1992). Woman directors, especially outsider board.
directors, contribute an independent view to Corporate women directors are also thought
the board (Fondas, 2000) and demonstrated how to serve as role models (Catalyst, 1998a),
one woman directors intervention can change mentors, and champions for high performing
the strategic direction of a company (Selby, women in the organizational, and monitor the
2000). application of social justice and equity policies in
Having women in key positions is argued to recruitment (Burke and McKeen, 1993).
Women Board Directors: Characteristics of the Few 41

Rather than argue for the appointment of virtue of their specialist expertise, industry
women directors on the basis of equal opportu- contacts, or prior experience.
nity, social justice, and fairness, the arguments for In the United States, nonexecutive directors
womens inclusion on boards have been presented are usually called outsiders or outside directors.
in terms of a business case (Cassell, 1997; Executive directors are usually called insiders
Sweetman, 1996). Sweetman (1996) claimed that or inside directors, although the definition can
women directors add value to a company through vary somewhat. Catalyst (1998c) defines inside
their contribution to business by participation on directors as officers of a company who serve as
company boards. Cassell (1997) put objectives of members of its board. Kesner notes that
business success and competitive advantage at insiders can also be retired executives of the
the center of the business case. An important company (Kesner, 1988). Bilimoria and Piderit
aspect of Cassells business case for the inclusion (1994) also include relatives of current and
of women executives was the recognition of former directors in their definition of inside
changing demographics trends on labor force directors.
demographics. Executive directors gain their position through
Increased profitability has been claimed to be normal career progression, typically rising to the
associated with the appointment of female direc- positions of Chief Executive Officer of Chief
tors in the United States (Catalyst, 1995a). Of Financial Officer, thus automatically inheriting
the 50 most profitable United States companies a seat on the board. Nonexecutive directors are
in the Fortune 500 listing, 82% had at least one appointed by invitation of the board chairman or
female director, and all top 10 companies had a nominating committee. Often the board will
female directors on their boards (Catalyst, seek out CEOs of other companies to invite onto
1995b). Similarly, most of the top 20 companies the board, however as the selection of candidates
in Australia have at least one woman board is at the discretion of the chairman or nominating
member (Korn/Ferry International, 1997). Daily committee, there is the discretion to select other
et al. (1999) claimed that inclusion of women less obviously qualified candidates. Nonexecutive
on corporate boards would allow companies to directorships are attractive to women as a means
access the full range of intellectual capital of obtaining board directorships to bypass the
available. Womens strong influence on consumer traditional hurdle of becoming a CEO before
purchases, and on Americas workforce, suggests being nominated to a board position.
that companies should have a female perspective The results of Burgess and Tharenous (2000)
on their boards (Crain and Snyder, 1998). study of 572 women directors support different
In summary, the weight of argument appears factors being related to womens appointment to
in agreement on the value of women on boards as nonexecutive versus executive directors.
boards of directors, for a multiplicity of positive Women executive directors were distinguished
effects. from executive directors by having greater man-
agerial advancement, higher education levels, and
being older, suggesting more human capital.
How obtaining a board seat arises Suggesting the influence of social capital, they
were employed in less male managerial hierar-
There are two different categories of company chies, and had more years working with other
directors executive directors and nonexecutive women directors, but had less mentor support.
directors each being appointed in different Women nonexecutive directors were more likely
ways. Executive directors are senior company to be employed in higher occupation types, the
executives who have a place on the board public sector, and in larger organizations than
because of their position within the company. executive directors were.
Nonexecutive directors are persons whose
primary employment is external to the organi-
zational and hold a position on the board by
42 Zena Burgess and Phyllis Tharenou

How organizations can help with the Board subcommittee involvement

appointment of more women directors
Bilimoria and Piderit (1994) suggested that
To create change in the representation and status women directors have been under-utilized on the
of women on company boards will require more central and substantive board subcommit-
changes in the policy and procedures of compa- tees, with women directors being allocated to
nies recruiting directors. Researchers have iden- public affairs or corporate social responsibility
tified a range of strategies for companies to areas. Companies are urged to make fuller use
appoint women to boards. of the skills and abilities of their women direc-
tors on the central and core committees dealing
with governance issues (Bilimoria and Piderit,
Redefinition of the pool of eligible directors 1994; Mattis, 2000). It is argued that increasing
women directors visibility in core board gover-
Mattis (2000) has argued for a change in the nance roles will lead to enhanced recognition of
definition of eligibility for appointment to allow the value of women directors (Mattis, 2000).
for women who have other senior management
experience to be considered. Women who
should be considered may not already hold a Diversity and good business
board appointment. Broadening of the candidate
pool would provide increased opportunities for Company CEOs should be encouraged to
women (Mattis, 2000). support and acknowledge the importance of
women as a business source and commit to
enhancing womens opportunities in manage-
Internal company promotion ment and on the board (Mattis, 2000).

By providing career ladders that enable women

to gain core business experience within the How women can attain board directorship
company, women managers can be developed positions
and promoted. Women within the company may
become suitable appointments for their own Womens differences as well as their similarities
company board (Mattis, 2000). may assist in their gaining board positions.
Ibrahim and Angelidis (1994) examined 398 male
and female directors for gender differences in
Objectification of the selection process directors levels of corporate social responsive-
ness. Analyses established that differences
The selection process for company directors existed between men and women in relation to
tends to be informal, through personal recom- economic and discretionary components of the
mendation and networking (Huse, 1998), rather Corporate Social Responsiveness Orientation
than relying on objective criteria or a standard- Scale. The study found that women directors
ized process. Development of a more formal set were more philanthropically driven compared to
of guidelines for nominating committees could more economically driven male directors. Both
help avoid a tendency to select people that are male and female directors were similar on the
similar to the current (predominantly male) legal and ethic dimensions of corporate gover-
incumbents. Formal guidelines may be issued to nance. The finding of greater sensitivity exhib-
executive search companies and advertising ited by women directors to corporate womens
agencies when seeking candidates for board posi- social responsiveness is reinforced by the obser-
tions (Mattis, 2000). vation of other researchers that womens social
sensitivity appears to be a major reason for the
appointment of women to boards.
Women Board Directors: Characteristics of the Few 43

Bradshaw and Wicks (2000) examined sources McGregor (1997) listed a range of activities
of influence as reported by the women and relevant for a proactive approach as documenting
success factors in a detailed interview study of achievements, focusing ones resume, answering
Canadian women directors experiences. The public advertisements, participating in ongoing
strategies women used to gain influence on the professional training as a director, corresponding
Board formed a continuum from trying to fit in with Board chairmen, attending shareholder
with the prevailing male view to a strategy of meetings, networking and forming alliances.
aggressive confrontations and ultimatums at the
other end. The women directors reported they
adjusted their strategies for influence depending Extending media management skills
on the nature and composition of the board, the
issue under discussion, and their perception of Related to creating a public image, is an under-
their own status on the board. standing of media that enables it to be used as
Regardless of the strategies the women used a tool for self-promotion. McGregor (1997)
to gain influence within board meetings, women suggested a broad range of strategies such as
directors acknowledged that some decision attracting media coverage, public speaking, using
making occurred outside board meetings talkback and letters to the editor of newspapers,
(Bradshaw and Wicks, 2000; Selby, 2000). developing contacts with journalists, becoming
Women directors common strategy of building a skilled communicator, participating in business
alliances, networking, and lobbying was seen as and professional forums, entering public debate,
advantageous (Bradshaw and Wicks, 2000). and developing lobbying and negotiation skills.
Women directors commonly attributed their
success on the board to hard work, demonstrating
their willingness to work hard, and their com- The importance of networks
mitment to male colleagues (Bradshaw and
Wicks, 2000). Women need to develop strong networks and
Researchers have identified a number of strate- alliances that will support their promotion as
gies to assist women to enhance their profile as directors. Established social networks of board
suitable candidates. directors advantage men (Israeli and Talmud,
1997). Women may need to rely on strong ties
with significant strategic allies. The connection
Creating a public image with allies should include overlapping interests
with friendship, trust and mutual commitment
Women who are publicly recognized and have a (Israeli and Talmud, 1997). Sheridan (2001), in
high profile have attained a greater number of a recent study of women directors of public com-
directorship than those women with a lesser panies, reaffirmed the importance of networks for
profile (McGregor, 1997). McGregor argued for facilitating board appointments.
women who seek appointment as directors to
develop a conscious and planned strategy to
creating a public image. Women may need public Training and career development
relations and visibility promoting strategies to
establish a public profile for themselves (Pollak, Few women have commensurate upper manage-
2000). ment line experience in areas such as marketing
and operations. Therefore, training and devel-
opment may help women who seek to be direc-
Proactive approach to board selection tors compensate for lack of experience. Whatever
leadership experience a woman can obtain will
Women need to volunteer, self-promote, and be helpful, especially if the leadership experience
have the self-confidence to take initiatives. includes profit and loss responsibility (Pollak,
44 Zena Burgess and Phyllis Tharenou

2000). Pollak (2000) also recommended women problematic due to significant differences in
obtain international experience and previous survey samples. For instance, in the United
board experience even if it is in the health or States, researchers commonly use the Fortune
not-for-profit sector. 500 as a sample population, and they are rou-
tinely surveyed by Catalyst (1998c). However,
when Catalyst (1998b) attempted to replicate
CEO and board contacts their research in Canada using the Financial Post
500 they found serious shortcomings in this
The importance of building and maintain sample compared to the Fortune 500. Catalyst
contacts with CEOs and other board members attempted to compensate by introducing the top
cannot be underestimated for women seeking 20 financial institutions, top 20 life insurance
board appointments. A recent study of boards of companies, and the top 20 crown (government
public companies (Sheridan, 2001) found that for owned) companies into their sample. This was of
boards on which women had served longest, 35% such limited success that Catalyst (1998b) felt
of the sample had gained their appointment compelled to report many of the statistics sepa-
through CEO recommendation and a further rately for the different groups. Although Catalyst
33% attributed their appointment to recommen- went on to make comparisons between their
dation of another board member. For those adjusted Canadian sample and the Fortune 500,
women in the sample holding multiple director- it is not clear that such comparisons are valid
ships other board members were instrumental in because of the different characteristics of the two
assisting them gain appointments as was an exec- samples.
utive search firm (13%). The size of the companies making up the
Fortune 500 are so large that they dwarf the
companies that necessarily make up the samples
International comparisons of in other countries. Organizational size is one of
characteristics the most consistent predictors of an organization
having women directors (Burke, 2000b; Catalyst,
What then is the profile female board directors? 1998b; Harrigan, 1981). As the Fortune 500
Do they exhibit any particular traits that set them companies are so large, it is questionable whether
apart from the general populace? A summary of a comparison between the Fortune 500 and
the characteristics of women directors follows, any sample from another country will be a valid
based on reported data available from various comparison between countries. Any such com-
authors. parison is likely to be clouded by the differences
Recent international research findings across between the sizes of the organizations in the
a number of different countries provide detailed samples.
data for the United States (Mattis, 2000), Britain Even within the United States, statistics from
(Vinnicombe et al., 2000), Israel (Izraeli, 2000), the National Foundation of Women Business
Canada (Burke, 2000a), and New Zealand Owners (NFWBO, 1996) illustrate the difference
(McGregor, 2000). Organizations that periodi- between very large organizations and smaller
cally provide descriptive information are organizations. Whereas in 1996 the percentage
Korn/Ferry International (1998) in Australia, of board sets held by women in Fortune 500 cor-
Catalyst (1998c) in the United States, and porations was only 10.2% (Catalyst, 1998c), the
Ashridge Management Research in the United percentage of all United States businesses owned
Kingdom (Holton, 2000). Australian data used by women was 36% (NFWBO, 1996). Although
for these comparisons were obtained from a the two statistics are not directly comparable,
national survey performed by the authors in clearly the characteristics of organizations in the
1996. two samples, one a sample of only the largest
Comparisons between the statistics across dif- companies, the other a sample of companies of
ferent researchers and different countries are all sizes, will also be very different.
Women Board Directors: Characteristics of the Few 45

With this caveat that comparisons of womens Highest level of education

representation across countries are fraught with
difficulties, several commonly reported charac- Over two-thirds (69%) of Australian women
teristics are described below. To make detailed directors achieved an undergraduate degree or
comparisons between countries, great care would higher, while over one quarter (28%) achieved a
have to be taken to hold other significant factors, Masters degree or PhD (see Table II). Catalysts
such as organizational size, constant. (1993) U.S.A. study, and Burkes (1994) Canadian
study agree very closely on the educational level
reached by North American directors at 89% and
Directors age 88% respectively holding undergraduate degrees.
The New Zealand sample of Pajo et al. (1997)
Most Australian women directors were in the 45 shows an extraordinarily high number (83%) of
to 49 year old age group, with the majority (81%) women directors with postgraduate degrees. In
aged over 40 years (see Table I). In the United Israel, Talmud and Izraeli (1998) report a very
States, in 1991, women directors were older, similar number to the Australian sample, with
with most aged between 50 and 59 years, and 68% holding a university degree. Comparative
98% aged over 40 years (Catalyst, 1993). Catalyst data for the United Kingdom were not available.
has not reported the age of women directors Overall, conclusions about educational levels are
since their 1991 data. In 1994 Burke reported particularly difficult due to inherent differences
that most women listed in the 1992 Canadian in the structure of tertiary education between
Financial Post Directory of Directors were aged countries.
between 41 and 45, with only 70% aged over 41.
In Britain, most women directors were aged
between 45 and 49 years, with 87% aged 40 years Marital status
or more (Holton et al., 1993). The average age
of Israeli women directors was 47 years (Talmud Most of the Australian women (65%) were
and Izraeli, 1998). married (see Table III). The Australian sample
compares well with Catalysts (1993) U.S.A.
sample and the Canadian samples of Mitchell
(1984) and Burke (1994), with about 70% of
all samples agreeing on the common item of

International comparisons of directors ages

Country Australiaa U.S.A.b Canadac U.K.d N.Z.e Israelf

Sample size 0325 ~160g 259 47 44 0 98

Median age 004549 05059 04650 4950 4150 0
Mean age 0047 ~56 047 51 0 47
% over 40 years old 0081% ~98% 070% 87% 84% 0

Note. A dash in a cell of the table signifies that the corresponding data item was not reported.
Burgess and Tharenou, unpublished manuscript.
Catalyst, 1993.
Burke, 1994.
Holton, Rabbetts and Schrivener, 1993.
Pajo, McGregor, and Cleland, 1997.
Talmud and Izraeli, 1998.
Sample size estimated from method description.
46 Zena Burgess and Phyllis Tharenou

International comparisons of education

Country Australiaa U.S.A.b Canadac N.Z.d Israele

Sample size 0325 ~160f 0251 44 098

University graduates 0069% ~089% 0088% 93% 068%
Masters, PhD 0028% ~0 0041% 83% 0

Note. A dash in a cell of the table signifies that the corresponding data item was not reported.
Burgess and Tharenou, unpublished manuscript.
Catalyst, 1993.
Burke, 1994.
Pajo, McGregor, and Cleland, 1997.
Talmud and Izraeli, 1998.
Sample size estimated from method description.

TABLE III their Canadian (average 2.4 children) or U.K.

International comparisons of marital status (average 2.5 children) counterparts. Comparative
data for Israel were not available.
Country Australiaa U.S.A.b Canadac

Sample size 0325 ~160d 0251

Married 0065% ~069% 0071%
Burgess and Tharenou, unpublished manuscript. Research on women directors in recent years has
Catalyst, 1993. used more sophisticated methodologies including
Burke, 1994. analyses based on multivariate statistics. There
Sample size estimated from method description. have been quantitative studies and interview
studies using narrative analysis. Some studies have
married. Burke and Kuruczs (1998) Canadian used a specific theoretical framework to direct
sample is significantly lower with only 47% research design whilst others are still exploratory.
of women indicating they were married. Sample numbers are low due to the difficulty in
Comparative data for the United Kingdom, New identifying women directors and there continues
Zealand and Israel were not available. to be reliance on analyzing secondary data that
limits the depth of the understanding that can
be obtained.
Numbers of children The issue of the lack of knowledge of womens
representation requires detailed benchmark data
The Australian figures differed from overseas about womens representation on boards (Burton
studies in that the numbers of dependent children and Ryall, 1995). Although there are variations
were measured, whereas the overseas studies did in data collected, consideration of the recent
not appear to discriminate and reported all studies and industry surveys have suggested
children. This may explain the difference in worldwide trends that make the issue of womens
numbers of women directors with children; 44% under-representation more visible. There has
of Australia women had dependent children, been a need identified for further benchmark
compared to over 70% in the U.S.A. and Canada data across various countries (Burke and Mattis,
with any children (see Table IV). However, those 2000), a need for multivariate studies (Burgess
Australian directors with children appeared to and Tharenou, 2000), research that integrates a
have larger families (average 2.9 children) than variety of perspectives focusing on actual board
Women Board Directors: Characteristics of the Few 47

International comparisons of numbers of children

Country Australiaa U.S.A.b Canadac U.K.d N.Z.e

Sample size 0325 ~160f 00259 0470 44

Any children 0044% ~074% 0071% 00 55%
Mean number of children 0002.9 ~00 0002.4 002.5
Mode 0002 ~002 0002 00

Note. A dash in a cell of the table signifies that the corresponding data item was not reported.
Burgess and Tharenou, unpublished manuscript.
Catalyst, 1993.
Burke, 1994.
Holton, Rabbetts, and Schrivener, 1993.
Pajo, McGregor, and Cleland, 1997.
Sample size estimated from method description.

behavior (Huse, 1998), and a need to tackle the Compliance and Non-compliance to Hegemonic
issues of theoretical models for the research Masculinity, in R. J. Burke and M. C. Mattis
(Burke and Mattis, 2000). (eds.), Women on Corporate Boards of Directors
Women have gained board seats but will (Kluwer Academic Publishers, The Netherlands),
remain a numerical minority for a long time into pp. 97109.
Burgess, Z. and P. Tharenou: 2000, What
the future (Bradshaw and Wicks, 2000). The
Distinguishes Women Non-executive Directors
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with selection based on homosocial reproduction and Organizational Factors Related to Womens
(Kanter, 1977) and self-cloning. Appointments to Boards, in R. J. Burke and
M. C. Mattis (eds.), Women on Corporate Boards
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