Is the idea of “unique” female business qualities a stereotype?

The idea that women bring “special” qualities to a boardroom is actually counterproductive to increasing their participation. Shutterstock/Andrey_Popov

There is a common theme in public debate on gender diversity – a focus on the unique benefits women bring to boards, the warm, inclusive and ultimately unquantifiable merits of a gender diverse boardroom. It rests on the notion that men and women are profoundly different. But are they - and should this matter?

Harvard Business School recently published a study that sought to understand why women only held 16.6% of Fortune 500 Board seats in 2012, despite public proclamations by corporate America of the benefits of gender diversity.

The article, “Dysfunction in the Boardroom”, was a revealing read, partly for the findings, but primarily for the focus and subsequent conclusions it made on some of the fundamental challenges of tackling gender diversity issues.

The study starts with a comparison between US and non-US companies, continues with a profile of the typical US female board member and examines the “special attributes that women bring to boards”. A different perspective on life, communication skills, willingness to ask tough questions, consensus-building skills and emotional intelligence are rolled out as the usual female traits which women bring to the table.

This continues with the hurdles faced by female executives – not being heard, not accepted as part of the in-group, establishing credibility, and the stereotypical expectations of female behaviour.

The study concludes with the acceptance that diversity is important and names some neat steps to improve board effectiveness - Build group dynamics; recruit and develop more female candidates; and conduct rigorous board assessments.

The premise and conclusions of this study rest on two assumptions that academics and organisations seeking to pursue a diversity agenda should be trying to overturn. The first assumption is that women bring unique qualities to boardrooms. The second assumption is that, with more encouragement, organisations will value these qualities enough to recruit more women to board positions of their own accord.

Both of these notions are unfortunately flawed. Firstly, as decades of psychological research have shown, assumption that men and women possess profoundly different traits, thinking and behavioural styles is not supported by evidence. It is, however, perpetuated by an unfortunate but fashionable misinterpretation of shaky studies with small sample sizes and microscopic experimental effects.

Secondly, and more frustratingly, even if it were true that women possess certain unique qualities, organisations clearly do not value them sufficiently to be hiring women to boards en masse of their own accord. The glacial rate of improvement in gender diversity in the senior ranks of organisations illustrates this.

This common theme of the “unique” benefits women bring to boards and their difference to men means that effective persuasion is based on articulating the tangible financial or performance benefits more female board members will bring.

But this argument has so far failed to inspire a groundswell of female board appointments, not least because company performance research on the effects of a more diverse board is mixed at best.

My research in the area of targets and quotas for women at senior leadership levels showed there is no strong or direct relationship between company performance, either market or financial, and the number of women on a company’s board.

Additionally, hiring women doesn’t guarantee the delivery of the proposed benefits of diversity – the women who make it to the top may not be stereotypically nurturing and collaborative, in fact they are highly likely not to be, given the extent to which the concept of leadership is laden with stereotypically male qualities.

Conceding women perform board functions similarly to men neutralises the argument women could constitute a threat to corporate performance. Shutterstock/hanayama

The so-called “think manager think male” paradigm of leadership is pervasive in organisations, and the more it is propagated, the harder it is for women to show competence against leadership qualities unless they behave counter-stereotypically – that is, more like men. When they do, abundant research on the backlash effect shows they are penalised for being too masculine.

That stereotypes and unconscious biases such as these insidiously drive more of our assumptions about the competence of women than their actual competence suggests that relying on the appeal for organisations to value “female” qualities in their search for board members is counter-productive.

The argument that men and women have profoundly different qualities of relevance to senior executive performance is not supported by evidence, and it overlooks the fundamental fact that organisations, like the society in which they operate is still structured to reward stereotypically masculine pursuits, and value men’s roles more highly.

What the evidence does show is that men and women are far more alike than they are different. Focusing on this fact changes the argument somewhat from being about valuing stereotypically feminine roles and qualities, to acknowledging that stacking a company’s board with women is not likely to cause performance to fall off a cliff. Because women perform these roles in much the same way as men do.

To place the emphasis on this point might highlight the uncomfortable admission that the lack of senior women is a product of flawed search, recruitment, and selection processes based on stereotypical and biased assumptions about their capabilities. However, it also neutralises the objection that a quantum increase in gender diversity would constitute a threat to corporate performance.

The benefit of boardroom diversity lies not the “feminisation” of board functioning. The advantage is the fuller utilisation of human talent and the return on the social investment of education and developing women in the first place. This is the message researchers and proponents of gender diversity should be promoting.