This article from Laurie Penny talks about the currently fashionable trend for trying to put more women in the boardroom as it is good for business. In particular, it references the “30 Per Cent Club”, a campaign group who aim for representation of 30% women on boards. Laurie discusses the political perspective very eloquently, and if you have not yet read the article, I strongly recommend you do so. Here, I provide some supplemental notes on the shaky science behind the 30 Per Cent Club.
The 30% figure is claimed to be evidence based, drawn from a 2007 report which found that businesses with more than 30% women on the board tended to do better, using a measure of success which is not in the public domain and ignoring any other possible explanations for the pattern, for example, that businesses with a better equality record might perform better due to being nicer places to work. The study was not well-conducted, and explanations for why this effect emerges are similarly problematic.
The notion that having more women in charge is good for a business rests on the assumption that men’s brains and women’s brains are fundamentally, innately different. Men are believed to be more likely to take risks, and these risks do not always pay off. This risk-taking behaviour has been put forward as an explanation for the financial crash. The evidence supporting this claim comes from a naturalistic study of City traders: those with higher levels of male sex hormone testosterone were more likely to take risks in investment. The sample size of the study was small; testosterone was only measured at the beginning and end of the day, not during trading; and, crucially, consisted entirely of men. From these results, a conclusion has been drawn by some that women must make better investors and therefore we need more women on the boards because women will not be distracted by all those manly endogenous steroids floating around.
Curiously, the explanation that men’s brains and women’s brains are fundamentally, innately different has also been used as an explanation for why there are fewer women in business in the first place. By this line of reason, men’s brains are set up for analysing, while women’s brains are set up for empathising. In work, the analytical person is better suited. At home, the empathic person is better suited. Men and women are just different, and have different roles. It’s not discrimination at all!
That innate, hardwired, cognitive differences between men and women can explain two opposing phenomena is not surprising, as the innate, hardwired, cognitive differences between men and women may not be as innate and hardwired as generally believed. Differences in performance on empathising or analytical tasks disappears when people are told that men and women perform the same on those tests, while the neuroimaging and hormonal tests are often as problematic as the testosterone study which “proves” that women make better investors. Building on this shaky foundation of research, the 30% Club campaigns for an arbitrary figure of gender representation in the hope of fixing a broken system with the power of women’s intuition. It is benevolent sexism: the belief that women are just better at this sort of thing than men, because they are different, and putting more women at the top will be beneficial as it will maximise profit.
In an ideal world, perhaps, women would already be represented in positions of power in numbers proportionate to their existence: 50%.