How Gender on Boards Reflects Social Awareness IE INSIGTHS- Article by researcher: Patricia Gabaldón
01 dic 2021

The use of quotas and regulations to increase gender equality on boards has become prominent in Europe. Patricia Gabaldón uses her research to analyze the role of national culture and firms’ own social consciousness in determining the success of diversity initiatives.

Companies everywhere are under increasing pressure from stakeholders – including their home countries at large – to move toward greater gender representation on their boards. In fact, ten European countries have become so frustrated by the slow pace of change that the governments have begun to adopt and promote a variety of approaches from self-regulatory to more punitive diversity initiatives to increase female board representation. Those countries include Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and Spain. While some countries such as Norway, decided to implement a mandatory quota of 40% on all listed boards for the most under-represented gender, women, other countries such as Spain, launched softer regulations, only including some rewards, instead of punishments, to companies reaching this 40% of representation on boards.


Additionally, the United Kingdom introduced a third category—voluntary diversity initiatives— in 2015 that provides aspirational targets. This has had a positive impact, with more than one-third of board roles of FTSE 350 companies held by women at the start of 2021. This has influenced FTSE companies positively, with more than a quarter of the seats on the boards of FTSE 100 companies now held by women – and the UK government is currently looking to build on these voluntary initiatives with more mandatory targets. However, while regulations in the form of gender quotas and recommendations have worked in some countries, the question remains as to whether they can work as efficiently in all.


In fact, mandatory quotas by themselves do not necessarily have the capacity to make the intended change. In a recent study I conducted with Cynthia Clark of Bentley University and Punit Arora of City University of New York, we determined that in order to make a productive impact on female board representation, it is critical to align regulations with the country’s unique national culture around gender equality as well as the individual firm’s attitude towards sustainability issues. An increase in women on boards within countries is therefore determined by the alignment between a number of factors.



In order to better understand this interplay between country and company, we developed an index called organizational social consciousness (OSC), which determines a firm’s awareness and regard for its place in and contribution to the broader social issues such as health and safety, working conditions, data privacy, or responsible production, among others. The way firms respond to normative pressures depends not only on the social expectations or the implementation of new rules, but also on the firm’s own receptivity of the need for change, reflected in their level of social, that is, the firm’s awareness and regard for its place in and contribution to the broader social issues of concern such as human rights, the environment or community engagement.

Public policy and regulation do not always sit well with companies, who may consider the burden – for example of reporting methods and extra paperwork – to be greater than the reward. However, when quotas are simply suggested as self-regulation, many companies might opt out of complying. They may also choose to incur small penalties or take other avoidance measures such as delisting from stock exchanges or moving to neighboring countries. This tendency is why it is helpful to consider where a company stands – or aspires to stand – in relation to its particular social and national construct in understanding how or why it reacts to a quota in a certain way.



Thus, there are several institutional factors that will affect the decision for a company to comply with new regulatory norms. Companies that are change agents must not only challenge an existing set of institutional frames, but the firms must themselves be socially conscious of the need to alter behavior. In fact, we have found that when a company’s culture is itself receptive to the need for change, this plays an equally, if not more, important role in that change actually taking place.



Therefore, the success of a firm’s diversity initiatives is dependent on how well that particular workforce understands the societal impact of those initiatives. Furthermore, while a strict quota may force firms to comply with the basic requirements, those socially conscious firms are more likely to go beyond the minimum requirements in order to reach genuine gender parity on corporate boards. In such cases, socially conscious firms undertake diversity initiatives that go well beyond prescribed minimums.


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