Diversity on Corporate Boards

Viviane de Beaufort, professor at ESSEC, Director of the European Center for Law and Economics, Academic Director of the “Women programmes” and spokesperson on gender equality, shares the results of her research on gender diversity and diversity of origin on corporate boards in France. 

The 2011 quota law in France (setting a target of 40% female members on corporate boards) has enabled women to now effectively sit on company boards throughout the country. Moreover, the impact and consequences of the minority sex in areas of power and influence can now be observed. Indeed, the tide has turned and a certain male (and white) model is now suffering from obsolescence confronted by a new world and the diversity of our society.

Women and Governance – Experience of a change of paradigm

Mostly removed from the seats of power women, as an ultra-minority, then minority, have projected an idealised version of how Boards operate and the mission of the female administrator. As with any newcomer, they bring a new eye to things, put their stamp on new decisions and have great expectations.

But as a minority, the complex of the female impostor hits hard. As such, they give recourse to skills and competences to reassure themselves of their legitimacy as a member of the ‘female quota’, something that makes them meticulously prepare the items on the agenda and also step up the performance of the board which becomes, in the eyes of the boss, ‘more professional, more efficient’ and must, moreover, let us remind ourselves, from now on be regularly assessed.

Often impacted in their careers by the vertical and authoritarian exercise of power, and persuaded of the added value of being a listener and a good team player, they have a desire to practice their power in a more collective way. Relatively free of the quest for the attributes of power (potestas) which often seem to them superficial (because they themselves have witnessed the sterile results of this largely egotistical competition), they prefer to use power to do things (potentia) and strive to undertake tangible action in the name and social interest of the company. They tend to distance themselves from power games and direct conflict, having taken on board that, with rare exception, a brutal face down objectively turns in their disfavour. Very naturally, they develop a capacity for mediation and adaptation and therefore agility and a capacity to influence.

And finally, women cultivate a sharp sense of respect of the rules and ethics. Why? Because largely having been subject to situations of discrimination, they have understood that rules protect. Subsequently, for the female board director, there is no question of circumnavigating the rule – not for her and neither for others and the ‘little arrangements between friends’. As such, they risk having to assume an image of psycho-rigidness – at least in the beginning and the time it takes for the change in culture to happen.

A desire for modernity and efficiency drives them – changing the model. At last!

According to the women interviewed within the framework of this research, it is the nature of governance itself that must change. Its approach is judged too financial and not operational enough. They also highlight that HR policy and successor plans, as well as technical and technological skills, are too systematically missing from the agenda. ‘Boards are there to guarantee the durability of the company and not only the revenues of the board directors,’ declares one of them. They often adapt a medium-term perspective. Board assessment must be more systematic with feedback and reporting used as a way to improve how they operate. The size of the crisis means retuning to essential values: quality of management and composition, and efficient running of the board which must play ‘an increased role as the pilot in the airplane’, affirms another.

Aware of the added value of diversity

Perhaps because they have had to fight to impose diverse points of view, they are very conscious – beyond even the issue of gender diversity – of the importance of the diversity of career background, origins and age, etc. ‘It’s the range of skills and diversity of profiles which make Boards rich in character and effectiveness.’ Boards should indeed reflect this – complementary member profiles, more women but also more international, younger and more varied in nature. This means composing Boards with different personalities to together form a coherent body where the contact between temperaments and personalities creates added value: that of diversity.’

Women administrators:  an issue of change

On a Board, power games between the director and those who supervise him/her are often complex. The administrator’s independence of mind, an essential and required quality in codes of governance, can clash with the director’s desire for power. Yet, it has been seen that women administrators are more diligent, preparing meetings, asking questions, opposing those whom they might consider as non-compliant with their convictions. In short, they have courage and seek to influence the team to improve the decision-making process. If the norms of good governance are supposed to encourage independence, speaking up and speaking out among board members is sometimes insufficient.

An innovative new voice, women are often viewed as annoying (but more competent) within a Board or a governing body. As such, nominated women who wish to remain true to their role, and spurred by their idealised conception of a board, may sometimes have a problem of posture – because their behaviour disturbs others. They thus find themselves confronted with a choice: resist and remain firm, or renounce and conform (over-adaptation) and therefore lose their singular added-value. Let us hope that uniqueness will win the day over conformism.

As such, a new issue is raised: is it possible to apply this research to the question of diversity of origin on Boards?

Delving into the academic literature regarding in minority/in-majority relations and at the same time moving away from the gender issue, it is possible to open the debate on the diversity of origin that has been almost absent (4% of the CAC 40) on Boards in France. As mentioned earlier, a certain male (and white) model is currently going through a crisis of obsolescence in the face of the new world and the diversity of our society.

  •  Qualities linked to the ‘in minority’ posture regarding candidates from diverse origins (meaning non-white)
  1. The minority learns to have a capacity to listen to others, develop a capacity for cooperation, compromise, mediation and a capacity for anticipation because it has learnt to ‘listen to’…the majority
  2. The complex of the impostor leads it to be consistent, prepare meetings, take ownership of subjects and ask questions.
  3. Once its potential leaves discrimination behind it is led to possibly opposing what it might consider as non-compliant with its convictions, and to be very attached to ethics and rules (which protect it).
  4. Excepting if a reflex of over-adaptation intervenes (too often) or avoidance – hence the major interest in the concept of sufficient minority proportion (like that of more mental than technical preparation because the ability for board members to speak out is sometimes insufficient), the minority can then set itself the choice of resisting or conforming.
For a full list of references and notes accompanying this article, visit the French version on Involved In #Governance & #Diversity 

Useful links:

Discover more about Responsible Business and Leadership. Download Global Voice, the Council’s quarterly eMagazine:

The Council on Business & Society Global Alliance is an international alliance between four of the world’s leading business schools and an organiser of Forums focusing on issues at the crossroads of business and society – The Council Community helps bring together business leaders, academics, policy-makers, students and journalists from around the world. Follow us on Twitter #The_CoBS . Visit the Council’s website for a host of information, learning opportunities, and free downloads.  

Leave a Reply