Gendered discourse in corporate boardrooms

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Cheryl Hurst is a first year postgraduate researcher with interests in organisational diversity and gender (in)equality on corporate boards. She is also interested in qualitative research methods, looking to make interdisciplinary links between corporate research and linguistics through critical discourse analysis.

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As we pause to celebrate the achievements of women over recent decades, it is important that we continue to use the momentum gained to close existing gender gaps even further.

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Gender Gap Report, gender equality will not be achieved until 2095 if we continue with current rates of change. Similarly, the 2016 Board Diversity Census identified that FTSE 100 companies will have to maintain their current momentum to achieve 40% of women on boards in the next decade. While progress is being made, focus must remain steadfast on the gender-inclusivity of board appointment processes.

Corporate boards continue to be dominated by men on a global scale. After a high profile initiative and five years of external pressure, UK FTSE 100 companies have doubled the number of women on their corporate boards from 12.5% to 26%.

The target of 25%, set out in the Davies Report in 2010, established the need to persuade companies to improve their gender balance on boards without imposing quotas. Davies argued against quotas on the premise that board appointments should be made based on ‘business needs, skills and ability’.

In contrast, however, other countries are adopting quotas, with over 15 establishing government set gender quotas with sanctions for non-compliance. While the debate continues, it becomes increasingly clear that the best-qualified people may not be appointed to board positions. As more women than men achieve tertiary education, and women accumulate relevant experience of equal value to their male counterparts, the lack of representation suggests that the appointments are not based on meritocracy. Whether through voluntary initiatives and targets or lawful quotas, intervention is proving to be the most viable solution to the underrepresentation of women.  

Moving away from ‘The Business Case’

The reasoning behind increasing female representation is well rehearsed but not entirely saturated. There is a strategic need to move away from ‘the business case,’ which stresses the economic benefits for a company to have more women sit on their boards.

The business case is less defensible as it ignores the idea that organisations benefit from the discrimination and exploitation of women and minorities. Research is also unable to quantify the benefit of increasing board diversity, as several other factors impact organisational success. More productive companies are also found to be more likely to hire women, leading to potential biases in how we interpret the success of an increase of women.

In a July 2016 Financial Times publication, the chair of the Women on Boards review admitted that there was little resistance to the idea that is was ‘good business’ to increase the number of women, but that getting organisations to commit to change and recognise female talent was the actual challenge. We must therefore emphasise non-economic rationales for improving gender diversity, focusing on ideas of social justice and fairness. Increasing women on boards is as much about improving business performance as it is about ensuring that gender is not a barrier to human potential.  

Existing ‘Gendered’ Discourse

Since 2015 the proportion of women on corporate boards has remained at 26%, with women still being underrepresented in top executive positions and voting roles. More concerning, women are still struggling to be appointed CEO or as executive directors, with only 9.7% of executive directorships being held by women in the FTSE 100 companies.

When discussing women on boards, executive members consistently claim that competence and personal attributes are the determining factors in board appointment and success, regardless of gender. In recent research, however, it is increasingly clear that organisational discourse remains highly gendered, with ideas of success still being seen through a masculine model.

The idea of “competence” is one that is constructed within this gendered model, with key competencies reflecting those qualities associated with men and masculinity. Women are expected to be both similar and different from men, balancing the need to fit within current models while simultaneously reflecting their individual experiences. By understanding the role of discourses in constructing these models and establishing a gendered culture, we can build a better picture of the current state of board appointment processes.

Moving Forward

Discourse is an essential part of socio-cultural practices, and my research aims to help connect organisational social contexts and the gendered discourse surrounding corporate board appointments.

My research, working with Professors Jennifer Tomlinson and Catherine Cassell, addresses the gap within intervention research, focusing on the implementation of voluntary targets and quotas. Broadly, I aim to answer the question: how does the discourse surrounding the implementation of interventions contribute to the overall gendered culture of corporate boards?

To do this, I am concentrating on how existing board members discursively represent their experiences with gender regulation. In turn, I hope to foster an understanding as to how these discursive representations justify and legitimise the gendered nature of corporate boards.

I hope to move closer to understanding the impact of intervention method discourse on gendered organisational culture, and to ultimately eliminate the attitudinal and structural barriers that women experience as they climb the corporate ladder.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.