Susan R. Madsen: There’s no excuse in 2021 for the lack of gender diversity in boardrooms

Token representation is not enough to improve the decision-making process.

Picture this: You join a group of strangers in a room and are told to find someone to talk to. As you look around, you see a tall white woman, medium build, wearing glasses and jeans. If this is who you choose to approach, then chances are pretty good that you are also a tall white woman of medium build, with glasses and jeans. Or pretty close.

We are unconsciously drawn to people who are like us. And unless we make conscious efforts, the pull of the familiar is hard to resist.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at many of the boardrooms in Utah across a variety of sectors. Although things are changing, what you will mostly see are rooms full of people of a similar gender, race, educational level and background. This is because the people who choose board members are defaulting to the familiar, replicating themselves.

But in 2021, there are no more excuses. It’s time we make deliberate decisions to have boards, commissions, and committees reflect the larger population by nominating, appointing, and inviting more women and people of color to join the conversations. Fortunately, the One Utah Roadmap of the Cox-Henderson administration makes diversity on state boards and commissions a priority moving forward.

Our research at the Utah Women & Leadership Project and vast research around the globe say the same thing: Gender diversity in boardrooms improves performance. There are hundreds of examples that show why this is so, from better identification with clients to reduced turnover and improved ethics to enhanced problem solving of thorny issues.

But these benefits don’t come from token representation. A lone woman may get asked to weigh in, but when it comes time to make a decision, the male majority will typically rule. And women are not a monolith, interchangeable with one another any more than any one person can represent an entire group. Women bring uniquely female ways of knowing into a boardroom, but they are more likely to be listened to if there is more than one.

In fact, a recent study out of Australia found that you need to reach 30% female representation to get the “benefits of genuine diversity and better outcomes for stakeholders and shareholders.” When a board is too similar, whether due to gender, race or age, you get groupthink, which makes it hard to address challenges with creativity and innovation.

As a state we need to address the fact that we still have nonprofits, companies, state boards and commissions, political subcommittees, city councils and municipal committees that have not a single woman. We need to encourage managers and leaders in entities of all kinds to be more open-minded and strategic in terms of recruiting, promoting, and retaining women (who are just as prepared as men) into positions of influence.

Ultimately the most successful organizations of the future will be those that attract, retain and grow talent in ways that provide more women and people of color with opportunities to succeed at all levels, especially at the board level.

Governments, organizations and societies that fail to fully use female talent will limit both their own economic and noneconomic growth and opportunities. The bottom-line is this: If you claim you can’t find any qualified women to join your board, you are not looking hard enough. There’s no excuse in 2021.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman endowed professor of leadership and the director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, Utah State University