Catalog: Digital Commons at Pace - New Repository Articles
Recently, U.S. activists, scholars, and policy makers have turned their attention to one notable effort to address the gender gap in management: gender quotas for corporate boards of directors. Twelve European countries have pioneered quotas in this context. France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Belgium now have mandatory quotas ranging from 30%-40%. Spain, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Austria, and Slovenia have voluntary quotas, and Germany and the EU are considering legislation to mandate quotas. Gender quotas for corporate boards represent an intriguing option, even if the case for quotas is not airtight. The argument for gender quotas rests on a number of empirical propositions, all of which remain contested. Scholars cannot yet show definitively whether gender quotas shatter the glass ceiling or improve board decisionmaking or business performance. Indeed, critics worry that quotas could produce a backlash, if female appointees are tokens or if female directors are untrained or inexperienced, but these claims, too, await further empirical investigation.
The excellent conference organized by Darren Rosenblum comparing global approaches to board diversity inspired me to think about how progress in this context has unfolded in the United States. Even though the issue of diversity on corporate boards has become a global issue, few U.S. boards have moved beyond mere tokenism when it comes to female directors. One reason for the lack of diversity among corporate directors is that board selection has been based on membership in a particular network. This essay, however, focuses on the persisting problem of discrimination—a more invidious explanation for the fact that very few corporate boards reflect the gender and racial diversity of their workers, consumers, and the communities in which they do business.
This symposium essay summarizes our ongoing ethnographic research on corporate board diversity. This research is based on fifty-seven interviews with corporate directors and a limited number of other persons of interest (including institutional investors, executive search professionals, and proxy advisors) regarding their views on race and gender diversity in the boardroom.
Using a method rooted in anthropology and discourse analysis, we have worked from a general topic outline and conducted open-ended interviews in which respondents are encouraged to raise and develop issues of interest to them. The interviews range from forty-five minutes to two hours in length and each interview is taped and transcribed. As a group, we then listen to each taped interview at least once with transcript in hand, analyzing each interview qualitatively with a focus on the themes that the respondents identify, the emphases given to these themes, the stories (or narratives) that they tell, and the details of the language that they use. We also thematically code the transcripts and use sorting software to get another, complementary view of the frequency and distribution of the various themes.
As we discuss at length in other published work, there are numerous tensions in directors’ accounts of race and gender in the boardroom. In this essay, we discuss what we view as the central tension in our respondents’ views on corporate board diversity—their overwhelmingly enthusiastic support of board diversity coupled with an inability to articulate coherent accounts of board diversity benefits that might rationalize that enthusiasm.
My work in this field has focused on regulation by quota and regulation by disclosure. With regard to quotas, strikingly, the Norwegian law is not located in regulation that explicitly deals with human rights or equality issues; rather, it is found in the heart of the legal regime that gives life and personality to corporations – in Norwegian corporate law. I have conducted qualitative, interview-based research with Norwegian corporate directors, both men and women. It is only through understanding how the goals of the law have translated into the day-to-day existence of these individuals that we can begin to consider the “big picture” questions that accompany the quota-based approach. With regard to disclosure, I have chosen to focus on the U.S. as a second case study for four principal reasons. First, similar to the Norwegian law, the site that houses the U.S. rule is noteworthy. Once again, it is not found in regulation that focuses on anti-discrimination etc…; rather, it is located in the heart of the legal regime that governs the public issuance of shares – in U.S. securities law. Second, and related to the first, the U.S. rule (like the Norwegian law) has been controversial, painted by some as an unjustified intervention into market terrain and as being in tension with the underlying purpose of securities regulation. Third, quite simply, U.S. markets represent the biggest share of overall global market capitalization. Fourth, I am mindful of the argument of scholars such as Schuck that there is something special – something unique –about the U.S.’s historical engagement with the idea of diversity.
My inquiry into the U.S. approach, using the diversity disclosure rule promulgated by the SEC, begins with an overview of its conceptual underpinnings. I then explore reactions to the rule and consider whether, in promulgating it, the SEC acted reasonably, or if it strayed significantly from its mandate. From there, I use a mixed-method, qualitative–quantitative content analysis to investigate the micro-dynamics of this approach. I take an initial temperature reading of corporate articulations of diversity under the first years of the rule. These articulations are particularly fascinating given that the SEC does not provide firms with a definition of the term “diversity”.
The specific results of my study are forthcoming. Overall, it establishes that the concept of diversity carries multiple connotations for U.S. corporations. However, perhaps its most salient finding is that, when left to their own devices (i.e. in the absence of regulatory guidance), firms most frequently think in experiential terms and focus on a director’s prior experience, or knowledge and skills — rather than in socio-demographic terms with an eye to gender or racial diversity. As I have reported elsewhere, only approximately half of firms in my sample fell into the latter camp.
In February 2013, on the day of the worst snowstorm in many years, Pace International Law Review conducted a symposium on “Comparative Sex Regimes and Corporate Governance.” Despite a total shutdown of all transport networks and the consequent absence of a few stranded scholars, we met to discuss the fraught questions posed by corporate board quotas and formulate answers.
Led by Norway in 2003, several nations have begun to mandate certain levels of women’s inclusion on corporate boards. In the face of widespread exclusion of women from corporate power that suggests structural biases, these quotas appear radical and compelling. The wake of the financial crisis has accentuated this phenomenon, as stereotypes of women as more risk-averse prompt legislatures to attempt to ensure more economic stability.