Female directors on Fortune 500 boards skillfully use tactics to achieve specific goals

Female directors on Fortune 500 boards skillfully use tactics that enable them to demonstrate warmth, competence, or both, allowing them to avoid backlash and achieve specific goals, according to new research at Cornell University’s ILR School.

Courtney said these tactics can help female managers achieve goals including diversifying conversations, clarifying perspectives and amplifying their experiences, and helping them manage the “double bond” — women’s expectations for expressions of warmth and competence — to get things done in the boardroom. McColney, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the ILR School and second author of the research.

Our study indicates that female directors spend an incredible amount of energy managing how and when they discuss matters, which can reduce the overall effectiveness of the board. It also undermines the reason to diversify the board. Do companies really want a different perspective, or do they want distinctly different managers who agree with the status quo? “

Courtney L. McColney, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior, ILR School and second author of the research

McCloney co-wrote the study, “Managing the Double Bond: Tactics for Engaging Women Principals in the Gender Boardroom,” with Tiffany Trzebyatowski of Colorado State University and Morela Hernandez of the University of Michigan. The paper has been published in Science Organization.

“In unpacking the types of tactics, we develop a more comprehensive understanding of women’s experiences of participating in male-dominated roles, and emphasize the need for scholars to incorporate a broader and more nuanced set of behaviors to account for intra-gender descriptions of engagement behaviors,” the authors wrote.

The researchers explored three sets of participation methods by interviewing 43 female managers of public companies. Warmth-based tactics included asking questions and connecting with others on the board. Competency-based tactics require female managers to confirm their opinions and qualify their skills. Waiting to share their insights and checking in with others outside board meetings have been categorized as mixed tactics because they combine warmth and efficiency.

By studying how and when these directors managed the double bond with a group with whom they had only several interactions per year, researchers found that directors customized their tactics, depending on their goals. Warmth tactics worked best when trying to diversify conversations, for example, and efficiency tactics worked best when amplifying their experience. When clarifying perspectives, participants said, both warmth and competency-based tactics were most effective.

“Determining what makes women effective participants on boards increases their influence over company decisions, which can be critical to financial performance and safety recalls,” McCloney said.

Their work is timely given the current focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in organizations. McLoney said companies are increasingly focusing on adding more women and members of other marginalized groups to their boards without considering whether these individuals would be free to participate and offer their expertise.

“Assessing the culture of councils and any governing body such as the US Supreme Court is just as important as adding traditionally excluded members to its ranks,” McCloney said. “Creating change from within must begin with fundamental changes in the meaning of participation as a director.”

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Journal reference:

Trzebiatowski, T., et al. (2022) Managing the Double Bond: Tactics for Female Principals Participation in the Gender Boardroom. Organization science. doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2022.1599.

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