From the Boardroom to the Board of Trustees: Understanding the Gender Gap


In a recent article entitled “Dysfunction in the Boardroom” it talked about the challenges women face when trying to get on a corporate board as well as the obstacles they encountered once they had been asked to serve in this capacity. (http://hbr.org/2013/06/dysfunction-in-the-boardroom/ar/1)

In 2012, only 16.6% of Fortune 500 board seats were held by women (Harvard Business Review, 2013) prompting some to ask why this number hasn’t been budging over the last six years. There is a lack of research on this area (anyone need a dissertation topic??) and a veil of secrecy around the gender dynamics of corporate boards in general.

What happens in the corporate sector has implications for those of us who work in higher education. It impacts our own ability to make inroads professionally and also shapes how our current and future students may be received in the workplace—which is enough of a reason for me to pay closer attention.

So who are these women who have made it despite the low numbers and perceived bias issues associated with being considered to serve on a board? “In comparison with male directors, fewer female directors were married and had children. A larger percentage of the women were divorced,” (pg. 90). Well that’s not new information. We are constantly bombarded with the concept of personal and professional tradeoffs for women. Until we understand that many womens careers are circular and not linear we will continue to professionally penalize those women who work in places that value traditional models of how works gets done.

But what I found most interesting is that 91% of the women—compared with 70% of the men—reported that they “enjoyed having power and influence,” (pg. 90). Are the tides turning? Are women finally admitting that successful people can own their power and influence (and hopefully use it for good)? This is a fascinating statistic and gives me hope that we can teach that power and influence are not inherently bad things–sharing power and using influence to advance causes that support the life and work of others are actually very good things.

Another great tidbit from this article is that career aspirations and ambition rose for older women compared to men. “Such ambition at a time of life when most professionals are winding down their careers (60s and 70s) suggests that women, whose opportunities have consistently been more restricted, may wish to extend the length of their careers with an eye to finally attaining the most coveted roles,” (pg. 90). This has implications for understanding how and when women may attain top positions (if they so desire) while still navigating the traditional work and family negotiation throughout their career.

87% of the women in this this study reported gender-related hurdles–what do you think the percentage would be for higher education? Here are the four primary obstacles that they commonly face (pg. 94):
1) Not being heard and listened to: “I have to yell for them to hear me”
2) Not being accepted as an equal or part of the “in” group: “I’m constantly not included in informal gatherings…by male board members.”
3) Establishing credibility: “As a woman you have a longer road to build credibility.”
4) Stereotyped expectations of women’s behavior: “I’m always seen as the voice of women.”

Do these challenges resonate from themes that we hear from students, faculty and staff about our own institutions?

What does this all mean for higher education? So much. Some thoughts to consider.
1) Create ways to promote skill development for women who may be nearing retirement age: Empower them to consider roles that they may have been denied ten years before. No one said it was fair but it might open the door a bit wider.

2) Create ways to disrupt old ideas about who (and at what age) is qualified to be promoted: Longevity does not equal talent. Can an entry-level person be 40 years old? Sure. So why couldn’t a Vice President be 30? The corporate sector is much better than higher education about recognizing and promoting talent regardless of age. When we shift the culture away from strict notions of what “paying your dues” has to looks like, a new model of leadership may emerge from it.

3) Continue to create on-campus affinity groups for underrepresented employees: In the 1990’s the (then) 13 female United States Senators came together for dinner once a month. It was a way for them to connect, seek advice, and develop alliances to promote commonly supported causes. Some universities are starting to embrace this model for women, people of color, LGBT staff and faculty.

What are your thoughts on this article? What can we learn about the challenges in the corporate sector that can enhance our ability to hire and retain a talented and diverse workforce? What is your department or campus currently doing regarding improving campus climate?

Folow me on Twitter: @annmarieklotz

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About annmarieklotz

I write about all things education, personal & professional development and growth. Once is a question, twice is a discussion and three times is a blog post! Born and raised in Detroit Michigan but currently calling the Pacific Northwest home. I work at Oregon State University and belong to a fantastic community of higher ed professionals around the globe! Lover of theater and the arts. Live your best life!
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