Huge study finds that companies with more women leaders are more profitable

It’s all in the C-suite.
It’s all in the C-suite.
Image: AP Photo/Richard Drew
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Advocates for gender parity like to argue that equality is not just about fairness, but also about better business results.

New data from the Peterson Institute for International Economics and EY bolsters that case. The groups analyzed results from 21,980 global, publicly traded companies, in 91 countries from various industries and sectors and showed that having at least 30% of women in leadership positions, or the ”C-suite,” adds 6% to net profit margin.

“The evidence on women in the C-suite is robust: no matter how we torture the data we get the same result: women in the C-suite are associated with higher profitability,” Marcus Noland, director of studies at the Peterson Institute, told Quartz in an email.

The study looked at women in three positions: CEO, board members, and members of the C-suite. It found female CEOs do not systematically outperform their male counterparts. While there is some evidence that female board members are associated with greater profitability, the results are not statistically significant. But the C-suite results were clear: more women translated to higher profits. And Noland argues that having more women on boards is associated with having more women in leadership, otherwise known as the “pipeline effect.”

Laura D’Andrea Tyson, an economics and business professor at the Haas School at the University of Berkeley, told a panel at the 2016 World Economic Forum that the gender parity debate is wrongly focused on fairness. Women, she argued, improve innovation and complex decision-making. “We have failed to make the business case,” she said.

This study may help.

Its critical weakness is that it is one snapshot in time, 2014, and not longitudinal. But it reveals there’s more than enough room for improvement in getting to parity:

  • 60% of companies had no female board members (13,017 firms)
  • Just over 50% had no female leaders (“C-suite”) (11,802 firms)
  • 4.5% had female CEOs
  • 3.8% of board chairs are female

Having women leaders happened in companies which were bigger, in countries where women did well on math assessments vis a vis their male counterparts, and where there was a relative absence of discriminatory attitudes.

Surprisingly, countries that provide mandated maternity leave do not have more female leaders. But those with more paternity leave do.

“It stands to reason that policies that allow for child care need to be met, but do not place the burden of this care explicitly on the woman, can allow women to have a greater chance of building business acumen and professional contacts necessary to advance to a level at which they would be invited to be part of a corporate board,” the study said.

Another discovery that will fuel policy discussions: quotas to mandate female representation on boards do not reduce, or improve, corporate performance. The study dispels the argument that quotas will lead to the same women sitting on the same boards (the “golden skirt” effect). Women who sit on multiple boards are no more common than men: 13% of male directors sit on two boards compared to 12% of women; 3% of each sit on three boards; and less than 1% of each gender sit on more than four boards.

“Golden pants” are as prevalent as “golden skirts,” which could be interpreted as one measure of parity that we’ve accomplished.