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More Women At the Top

March 18, 2024 by Twan van de Kerkhof

More women are getting into corporate boards. New Zealand, France and Norway are frontrunners in the OECD. They are nudging half of the total seats in company boards, according to The Economist (March 9th 2024). The OECD average is 33%, Hungary and Japan are the laggards with 12 and 18%.

However, the share of women in executive boards is much lower, progress is mainly in supervisory and one-tier boards. The Dutch Central Planning Bureau found in 2019 that only 15 percent of the top positions in business were held by women. The Dutch government did significantly better at 34 percent, and nonprofit organizations, such as healthcare and NGOs, scored as high as 40 percent.

Having more women on boards is good, mainly because it is just the right thing to do, moreover because it is unfair and dumb to exclude half of the population. Including women means gaining a bigger talent pond to fish from.

There are two myths about promoting women to leadership positions. The first is that this would lead to better performance, the second is that women lead differently than men.

Firstly, although some studies have indeed shown a correlation between the presence of women at the top and better financial performance, it is difficult to prove causality. Do these organizations perform better because more women work there or do women prefer to work at better-performing organizations or, for whatever reason, do organizations appoint more women while they are already successful? Studies have yet to prove an unambiguous relationship between the number of women at the top and an organization’s performance.

Secondly, it is not true that women lead differently than men. Of course the characteristic stereotypes are true to an extent, otherwise they would not be stereotypes: men are generally thought to be more competitive, goal-oriented, more focused (or single-minded), and display other similar traits, while women are seen as better at developing contact, communication, empathy, and the like; the hard skills versus the soft, so to speak. However, I doubt that these stereotypes hold true in boardrooms. To make a career in large organizations as a woman, you must also possess masculine qualities. By that same token, a male leader is not worth a damn if he does not also possess some typically feminine qualities. Purely stereotypical behavior is not going to make it at the top. Effective leadership depends on the qualities of the individual leader in the context of the job he or she has to do, not on their gender.