There are three key barriers to achieving a critical mass of women on boards that contribute to the glacial pace of change and which are not overcome without quotas.
1. Token numbers of women lead to complacency and stall progress
The existence of women in token numbers creates a belief that the glass ceiling has been breached. ‘Token practices’ lead to a form of complacency – women perceive that as long as one woman has made it, their own mobility is possible. Once at least 10% of board members are women, men also view hiring practices as equally fair to men and women.
Even where the number of women in senior roles doesn’t change over time, women still tend to believe that hiring is fair and view their organizations as providing them equal opportunity. Men are aware that they have a greater chance of promotion under token conditions. And under token hiring practices, men feel that their status as the majority is legitimate.
Recent research into the gender balance of the five highest paid executive roles in 1,500 US firms between 1991 and 2011 found that once one woman had been appointed, the chance of a second woman joining this group dropped by about 50%. The researchers had expected to find that the introduction of one woman into this top echelon led to a snowball effect. That did not occur over this 20 year period.
2. Homophily restricts network reach creating gender stall
Networks are the traditional basis for and continue to influence board appointments. Homophily is the tendency to associate with those like ourselves. At token representation levels, the density of the female director network remains subcritical. Token conditions mean that women already in the system can’t develop a strong network that enables them to invite a sufficient number of other women onto boards, and men’s tendency to network with other men means that prevailing conditions don’t change. Without intervention, critical mass cannot be generated: too many boards with no women, and too many boards with token numbers = gender stall.
3. Gender bias limits women’s perceived legitimacy for leadership roles
Leadership continues to be associated with agentic characteristics such as dominance, competitiveness and ambition. The pervasiveness of this set of beliefs means that decisions about legitimate leadership are routinely biased against women and in favour of men. Women face the dilemma of being damned for being competent as leaders, or doomed to support roles when they demonstrate gender-associated warm and communal behaviours.
It is well researched (eg Bhonet et al 2014) that hiring and selection decisions are impacted by unconscious bias based on candidate gender, with males more likely to be selected even where the experience, skills and abilities of male and female candidates are identical.
Targets, quotas and other methods are required to to counter-balance these forces, and achieve critical mass.