Putting Women On Boards Is No Guarantee Of Getting More Female CEOs


Norway has a requirement that corporate boards be at least 40 percent female, which has worked — women make up 41 percent of the board seats among its publicly listed companies. But that progress hasn’t led to equal progress in women reaching the CEO level. None of Norway’s 32 large-companies has a female CEO and just 5.8 of general managers at public companies are women, as the Wall Street Journal reports. This “suggest[s] there is no correlation between having several female directors in the boardroom and hiring a woman CEO,” it notes.

This trend is true for fellow Nordic countries Sweden, Finland, and Denmark as well. Just 3 percent of the 145 largest companies in the four countries have a female CEO. Finland has the most women on company boards in the region but none of its 27 biggest companies has a woman as chief executive.

The United States does fare somewhat better when it comes to gender diversity in the executive suite than in some European countries. Forty-eight women helm Fortune 1000 companies, and more than half of Fortune 100 companies have at least two women on their executive committees, compared to just a quarter of European ones.

But even here women still struggle to reach the top. A big part of the picture is that companies aren’t doing a good job of grooming an internal pipeline of female candidates. Just 16 percent of the executives who report to the CEO at American companies are women. The majority of women who are promoted into an executive position are still relegated to support areas like HR or communications. And when a company does pick a woman to fill its top role, they are more likely to look outside than in: more than a third of female CEOs are outsiders, compared to less than a quarter of male ones.

Women may also encounter barriers in their quest for the top. Female executives are less likely than male ones to be married or have children and much less likely to have a stay-at-home spouse to help them balance work and family. Women also experience more guilt than men for missing time with their children. This likely indicates that other women who had a husband and children weren’t able to balance them with the demands of work even though the same problem doesn’t hold men back. Many more women than men generally interrupt their career paths to take care of family members.

And flat out discrimination may still be keeping them back. Ambitious women who don’t interrupt their careers for family and who employ the same tactics as men to get ahead are still half as likely to advance.

The U.S. doesn’t have much to gloat about: Women make up less than 15 percent of the executives at Fortune 500 companies and progress in increasing that number hasn’t been made in four years. Meanwhile, we fall much further behind when it comes to getting women onto boards: they hold less than 17 percent of board seats and haven’t seen progress in eight years. Board quotas may not trickle down to the executive suite, but they at least have an impact. Here, the only diversity requirement of any kind is that companies must disclose how they take it into consideration when selecting their boards — and most don’t even comply with that small nudge.