We need women on boards for many reasons: ethics isn’t one

We need women on boards for many reasons: ethics isn’t one

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Boards are no longer a female-free zone, but do you know why?
Toronto Public Library

Linda Peach, Macquarie Graduate School of Management

There are many good reasons for increasing gender diversity on boards: better decisions, better performance, and better representation of the consumer base.

But the idea, put forward in a variety of research over the past twenty years or so, that women on boards improve the moral and ethical decision-making of those boards has a number of problems for both women and men, in the boardroom and out of it.

First, having gender equality on the board is increasingly part of corporate social responsibility initiatives. Rather than ethical standards improving when women are on boards, it may be that organisations with a corporate social responsibility focus create a climate of gender equality. This may mean their boards include more women simply because corporate social responsibility and equality are related concepts.

Second, the idea that women will set improved standards of moral and ethical behaviour for boards is based on the (faulty) assumption that when boards are made up of only men they will be morally and ethically lax. Surely that is a sexist view of men, based on notions of men as irresponsible risk-takers?

Third, it places the burden of responsibility on women to make sure that boys on boards don’t behave badly. Surely that is a sexist view of women, based on the idea that a mother will be the moral and ethical compass for a family unit?

Women on Australian boards

Australia – like most other countries in the world – has a distinct lack of women on its corporate boards: just 17.6% of ASX 200 directors and only 5% of ASX 200 chairs are women, according to the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Australia’s Gender Equality Scorecard shows that in Australian organisations with 100 or more employees, 23.7% of directorships and 12% of chairs are held by women. More worryingly, only 8.8% have set targets to increase gender diversity on the board, yet 48.5% of employees in these organisations are women.

Researchers (and others) have consistently noted that this poor representation of women at board level is a problem and have sought to convince male-dominated boards to make room for women. In looking for evidence to support their arguments, some research linked women on boards with “…a strong moral overtone…”, with increased corporate social responsibility and with less unethical behaviour. Other research found the more women directors it had, the more likely a company was to appear on lists such as “The world’s most ethical companies”. And so over time women have come to be seen as the ethical “saviours” of boards.

Considered in the light of ambivalent sexism theory, this suggests that women might be allowed to join the – predominantly male – boardroom club provided they do so as nurturing, caring, peacemaking, ethical gatekeepers. In other words, boards might be convinced to accept women so long as those women conform to traditional ideas of feminine behaviour. I wonder what would happen if women turned out to be ineffective as ethical watchdogs in the boardroom?

Diversity benefits boards

Putting aside the faintly fishy idea of women on boards as ethical gatekeepers and men on boards as lacking in ethical and moral principles, what are some of the valid and non-sexist reasons for taking steps to increase the gender diversity on boards of directors? Here are a few:

  • Diverse groups of people bring a greater variety of experience and different views to the decision-making process and then make better decisions
  • Gender diversity on boards helps to ensure that the entire consumer base is represented. This is particularly important because women now control the bulk of household spending globally, according to the World Economic Forum
  • Financial performance is better in companies that have gender diversity on the board. When women are included on executive committees, average return on equity improves by 47% and average earnings before interest and tax improve by 55%
  • Diversity in the membership of groups making investment decisions may lead to more social responsibility in decision-making around fossil fuel divestment.

Personally, I constantly wonder why we need to justify to the world that 50% of the adult population should have equal access to the same opportunities as the other 50%. It seems the argument that women should hold 50% of board positions because they comprise 50% of the population is not good enough.

The ConversationThere are many good arguments for ensuring there are more women on boards. That women have the moral and ethical high ground over men and will therefore be ethical gatekeepers on boards is possibly not a very valid justification and one that should not be given too much airspace.

Linda Peach, Adjunct Research Fellow, Macquarie Graduate School of Management

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


One day my prince will bomb: why teenage girls love a killer

One day my prince will bomb: why teenage girls love a killer

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The 19-year-old ‘Boston bomber’ has become the focal point for a number of fan clubs on social media.

Linda Peach, The University of Queensland

Prince Charming and the boy accused of the Boston bombings may not seem to have much in common. But thousands of teenage American girls appear to be falling in love with 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and the explanation may lie in a very awkward place indeed – somewhere between the shining armour and the poisoned apple.

Tsarnaev has become the focal point for a number of fan clubs on social media, largely comprising teenage girls protesting his innocence and professing undying love. Two Facebook groups have 8,400 and 13,500 members respectively.

Teenage girls are reported to be leaving messages of love for Tsarnaev. One young fan announced on Twitter she wanted to have his words tattooed on her arm.


Some commentators have said that the girls are acting out fantasies of being famous by aligning themselves with a notorious criminal. Others suggest that they are simply rebelling against authority.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

There is also much existing research about Stockholm Syndrome and its variations, including women who are attracted to infamous criminals, terrorists, murderers, rapists etc. All of these are no doubt a part of what is driving pro-Tsarnaev sentiments among young girls.

And yet I find myself wondering if it might be symptomatic of a wider social issue. While – clearly – not all young women are falling for Tsarnaev, there are enough to suggest something may be going on that is bigger than a few misguided teenage girls wanting to raise a middle finger at authority in a very public way.

Even Google has suggestions too.

Social roles theories

What does it say about our society that a potential terrorist can have such widespread appeal to young women? One perspective comes out of social role theory and ambivalent sexism theory. These theories suggest that we are a product of the social roles we inhabit, and I think this might add another piece to the puzzle of teenage girls’ infatuation with Tsarnaev.

© O de Andrade

The plot of social roles theories is more convoluted than a Mozart opera, but here are the sharps and flats of it: the foundation of social psychology professor Alice Eagly’s theory is that we’ve come to associate men with being physically strong, dominant, competitive, aggressive and assertive.

Women, on the other hand, are identified more readily with being caring, nurturing, unaggressive, dependant and communal.

Peter Glick and Susan Fiske, both professors of psychology, take this a step further with ambivalent sexism theory.

They suggest that modern benevolent sexism portrays men as providers and protectors for women. Women who value masculine power and who place themselves under the protection of a male are rewarded with approbation and approval. Women who do not are censured with disapproval and dislike.

The result is a gendered power imbalance in heterosexual relationships where men are physically, socially, and financially dominant, while also depending on women for intimacy, reproduction and caregiving.

This is an uncomfortable dependency for any dominant person or group. After all, if you’re going to dominate another sector of society, you don’t really want to have to rely on them for any goodwill, right?


So there needs to be a sweetener for the pill. Another psychology professor, Laurie Rudman, identified it by linking the provider-protector role with the romantic idealisation of potential partners.

Enter Prince Charming

Fairy tale notions of Prince Charming and knights in shining armour help to maintain stereotyped ideas of men as strong, dominant, competitive and powerful – and therefore desirable as protectors.

The same fairy tale notions place women in dependant roles where charming (and not-so-charming) princes can protect them. You don’t need to go very far to find a myriad of examples of fairy tales being spoon-fed to children (and adults) in everyday life.

A Name Like Shields Can Make You Defensive

Think Twilight, Die Hard, Skyfall … even Star Wars was ultimately a story of heroes rescuing a damsel in distress, albeit a rather feisty one with a disturbed hairdresser.

Young women and young men have come to idealise the heroes who will go to any lengths of violence or sacrifice to save the damsel and/or the world. In doing so, it may be that Prince Charming – for some – has morphed into an altogether more sinister proposition.

If you’re not minded to examine your chosen Prince Charming too closely, Tsarnaev appears to be socially dominant and powerful, and therefore a prime candidate for protector.

He has natural appeal for adolescent girls because he is of their age group, has been described as “too beautiful to be a terrorist”, and is attributed with statements such as:


Big tick for stereotyped Prince Charming superhero.

So, young women’s reactions to Tsarnaev, at an individual level, are no doubt associated with fame and rebellion. But teenage girls’ infatuation with Tsarnaev may also be an extreme example of the roles that women and men are expected to play in our world.

The ConversationRomantic fantasies of heroes can leave women vulnerable to “dangerous men”, whether of the celebrity boyfriend type or the closer-to-home domestic abuser. Viewed like this, it’s not so surprising that Tsarnaev fan clubs have popped up, and that adolescent girls are romanticising him to such an extent.

Linda Peach, , The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.