This is why it’s taking so excruciatingly long to get more women on boards

Potential victims of unconscious bias.
Potential victims of unconscious bias.
Image: Reuters/Ruben Sprich
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Making boards more diverse—in terms of gender and other factors—is now such a common goal that you’d think companies must have worked out how to do it by now.

But researchers from the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University have identified one big problem that stymies efforts to boost the ranks of female directors. It’s quite simple: women are more likely to be appointed to seats vacated by other women. When men step down, they are more likely to be replaced by men.

This “gender matching heuristic,” the researchers conclude, means that “current efforts towards gender parity may falter, even when people have positive attitudes towards diversity.” The Georgetown researchers tracked the trend at more than 3,000 listed firms between 2002 and 2011, citing it as one reason progress towards boardroom parity has been made at a creep, rather than a jog:

Female board appointment data from McDonough School of Business.
Slow progress.
Image: McDonough School of Business

The real-world results were then juxtaposed with lab tests. More than 230 business students were asked to appoint fictitious candidates to vacant board positions. After controlling for several variables, they discovered that when the departing board member was female, 68% chose a woman to replace her. When the departing board member was male, the “gender matching” urge was less strong, but still present: 58% of men were replaced with men.

Importantly, they also discovered that when more women than men were presented for consideration, the number of female appointments increased. “Our work underscores the importance of creating a pipeline of talented women in the workplace,” said Catherine Tinsley, the study’s author faculty director of Georgetown’s Women’s Leadership Institute, in a statement.

But even if “what works” is to stock the director candidate pool with more women than men, the bias remains. A “significant” gender-matching effect was still evident even when more women were fed into the pipeline, the study found.