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Boardroom Differences

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes


Any woman who wins a seat on the board of a listed company could fairly be said to have succeeded in a man’s world. We all know the dismal statistics on women directors. Scarcely any country in the world breaks the 20% barrier for women as a per cent of directors in listed companies. But with so few women successfully opening the boardroom door, you can’t help wondering if it is only the ones who are akin to men who make it, or even attempt it. That begs the question: do these women at the top of the corporate ladder actually differ in attitudes and values from their male counterparts?

Research in Sweden

There is a teetering pile of research that shows how men and women at large differ in their values, choices and preferences. You have probably heard the key findings over and over. Women are more caring, less competitive, more altruistic when the cost of altruism is high, and they are more risk averse. Men are more concerned with power and achievement.

Most of these comparisons, however, have been carried out with students or lower level corporate workers. Renee Adams, from the University of Queensland Business School wanted to focus squarely on directors and she looked around for a sizeable, yet manageable and representative sample. She chose Sweden: not only was the penetration of women on its listed boards and among CEOs approaching 20%, but the whole of the board population and key CEOs numbered about 1800 people. The response rate she received was satisfactory, with over a third of Directors responding and 30% of CEOs.

An added twist is that Swedish law permits firms with over 25 workers to appoint worker-representatives to the board. The research was thus able to compare those women who reached the board essentially via a legal route with those who had had to compete with fellow executives for their directorships.

Exploring Values

The research focused on values, because they “transcend particular situations and actions and are driving forces in life.” Specifically, it used Schwartz’s 10 basic values which are found in all cultures and which omit no value that is particularly meaningful to any one culture.

  1. Self-direction: Independent thought and action; choosing, creating, exploring
  2. Stimulation: Excitement, novelty and challenge in life
  3. Hedonism: Pleasure and sensuous gratification for oneself
  4. Achievement: Personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards
  5. Power: Social status and prestige , control or dominance over people and resources
  6. Security: Safety, harmony, and stability of society, or relationships, and of self
  7. Conformity: Restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms
  8. Tradition: Respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that traditional culture or religion provide the self
  9. Benevolence: Preserving and enhancing the welfare of those with whom one is in frequent personal contact (the Benevolence: Preserving and enhancing the welfare of those with whom one is in frequent personal contact (the “in-group”)
  10. Universalism: Understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature.

Researchers have shown that these 10 values predict a variety of actions that may explain differences in outcomes across men and women, such as voting behaviour or altruistic responses in experiments. Also, usefully, Schwartz’s value survey is used across Europe to study values in the general population including Sweden; this let the researchers compare Swedish directors’ values and any male-female differences in the boardroom against the general population.

In addition to values, a standard question was added to explore risk preferences.

The 10 can be gathered into 4 “super groups”, as follows:

  1. Openness to change – self direction, stimulation and part of hedonism
  2. Self enhancement – part of hedonism, achievement, power
  3. Conservation – security, conformity and tradition
  4. Self-transcendence – benevolence and universalism

The Bottom Line

Swedish women directors are fundamentally different to their male colleagues in their values and their risk profile. They are:

  • More universally concerned***
  • More benevolent***
  • More risk-loving***
  • Seek more stimulation**
  • Less concerned with power***
  • Less traditional***
  • Less conforming***
  • Seek less security**

*** significant at the 99% level

** significant at the 95% level

Referring to the super groups of values,it can be seen that women directors are relatively more self-transcending and more open to change, while their male colleagues are relatively more self-enhancing and conservative.

Implications for Governance

Far from shrinking from risk, these female directors seem to embrace it. It is aligned with their desire for stimulation and their low need for security. These are values that are “typically” associated with men, but here it is the women who hold them relatively more strongly. Appointing women to boards need not mean a reduction in risk preference (although some commentators have recently advocated more women directors on this very premise!)

These findings also challenge the stereotype of women as too risk averse and conservative to be effective leaders. The women who successfully pursue governance roles appear closer to the male stereotype on these dimensions yet they also bring a wider overall set of values to the board table.

The self-transcendent values (universalism and benevolence) that these women demonstrate have been found in other board research to be associated with taking stakeholders’ side if stakeholders’ interests are in conflict with shareholders’. Adams writes,

 “…changes in diversity can have causal effects on corporate outcomes.”

Note that these women are the directors who made it to the boardroom without the assistance of the Swedish worker-representative law or of any quota system. Adams next asks: are all women in the boardroom are the same, regardless of their entry route?

Worker Representatives

The answer: the women’s entry route does make a difference to their relative values. As Adams says, “in all aspects, women who have succeeded in the market for executives are different from female workers who get into the boardroom as a result of employment law.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their role of representing employees, women worker-representative directors are:

  • More universal
  • More benevolent
  • More security oriented
  • Less risk seeking by far
  • Less power-seeking
  • Less achievement-oriented

General Population – Highly Educated

And what about highly educated women who aren’t directors? In the general population, these women are different to the same grouping of men. They are slightly more traditional and security-oriented, and slightly less concerned with stimulation than men. Already, this demonstrates that they are also quite different to the women directors who we have seen to value more stimulation, more risk, less security and less tradition!

It’s worth noting that each of the women’s groups examined (director, worker-representative and highly educated Swedes in general) are all more caring and benevolent than the equivalent men. But between the women’s groups, the directors are relatively less self-transcendent (universal, benevolent) than the other women and noticeably keener on risk and stimulation.


Adams suggests that the values and risk profile of the highly educated females gives us insight into the kind of women who may join boards through a quota system such as the one Norway introduced in early 2008.

The larger the gender quota, the more likely it is that women will be chosen as directors who are similar to the population average.

The Swedish research suggests that, if appointed through quotas, these educated women would tend to reinforce some of the male director value preferences around tradition and security and could also tilt the board to a greater risk aversion. The current ‘on-their-own efforts’ women directors by contrast do appear to be injecting a greater degree of diversity.

Further implications

Adams draws out three further strands:

  1. Gender diversity is correlated with a positive impact on corporate outcomes. The why? is still under debate. These results show for the first time that male and female directors have measurably different priorities. That in turn may be what leads more gender-diverse boards to behave differently.
  2. Other research has shown that women’s presence on Boards has triggered improved governance in a variety of ways. Some commentators have questioned whether this effect will be temporary, because the women may “relax” once they have “made it”. Given that the roots of women’s different behaviours and attitudes go deep, however, the positive impact of bringing women onto boards should in fact be long-lasting.
  3. Psychological research shows a positive link between ethical behaviour and self-reported importance of altruism. Thus female directors embrace a value that has been shown to precede ethical decisions.

Lost in Translation?

You may be wondering whether these results will translate elsewhere in the world. Adams suggests two reasons why they may. She points first to the fact that values differences between men and women in the general Swedish population are similar to those reported for other countries. Secondly, research she has done in the US documents that the more gender-diverse boards have more equity-based pay for directors. “This is consistent with the Swedish finding that female directors are more risk-loving than male directors”.

What about YOU?

Might you be female director material? If you feel that you care about a wide set of stakeholders, are unimpressed by the trappings of power, find yourself somewhat impatient with rules and the status quo, and are energised by variety, change and risk, you could be the very woman for the job.

Excuse me… I’m off to tally my own values inventory against this list!

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