Policymakers, researchers and organizations are paying growing attention to the promotion of equality and diversity in the workplace, particularly in top positions. After introducing mandatory gender quota on boards, Norway is the only country that has achieved some kind of gender parity, although other European countries have introduced gender-balance policies. Our paper “Searching for women on boards: an updated literature review from the demand and supply perspective” in Corporate Governance: An International Review, offers a systematic review of the multidisciplinary body of theoretical approaches on women on boards, in order to understand the factors that hinder and facilitate the access of women to boards, and show the instruments that can be used for promoting women to senior corporate positions. These factors are divided between demand and supply side elements.

On the one hand, the predominant perspectives used on the demand-side find the barriers within the corporate world, such as discrimination that could inhibit the progression of women up the corporate ladder, as the main explanation for not having a gender balance in top positions. These discriminatory biases can occur when women are judged according to average group characteristics (“statistical discrimination”) or when male leaders are preferred, due to the vision of corporate leadership as a masculine activity (“taste-based discrimination”). These partially explain the selection of women as “tokens” (Kanter, 1977), used as symbols of their social category group, and the need for increasing the presence of women so as they do not consider themselves a minority in the group (the “critical mass theory”). The consideration of women as out-group members (the “social identity theory” (Tajfel & Turner, 1986)) also explains why the demand for women on boards is lower than that for men. Another form of discrimination is the so called “glass cliff”, which Ryan & Haslam (2005) describe as the tendency to prefer women for senior positions in organizational units in crisis (Haslam et al, 2010).

Biased perceptions of women’s skills and attitudes can be also strong barriers. These include: common assumptions such as that women lack adequate human capital (Becker, 1964; Burke, 2000; Ragins et al, 1998); stereotypes that assume women as being less effective board members (Nielsen & Huse, 2010); or the assumption that women have less and weaker connections within and outside their companies (the “social capital theory” (Coleman, 1990)). Furthermore, the rigidities of the external environment may create structural barriers to the presence of women on boards (Terjesen & Singh, 2008).

Going beyond the justice implied in gender balanced boards, firms can be even convinced of the benefits of gender equality or forced to overcome these differences. In this sense, the instruments to increase the number of women on boards in the corporate world range from mandatory quotas to voluntary targets or changes in corporate governance codes (Seierstad & Opsahl, 2011) to get close to gender equality on boards. Other instruments to convince companies to have more gender balanced boards are related to corporate image and reputation and how they promote better results and better companies.

On the other hand, supply-side elements are those individual barriers that hold female candidates from corporate leadership positions. Supply-side effects arise from considerations such as women’s different values and attitudes, identification of expected gender roles, or family conflict affecting women’s professional choices and consequent career path, which can all result in a relatively limited pool of qualified female candidates for board positions (Gregory-Smith et al, 2012). Among these are: gender differences in values, attitudes and motivations to reach top leadership positions (Eagly, 2005); self-identification with the expected cultural gender roles and stereotypes; the still present work-family conflict (Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985) and women’s commitment to family responsibilities. These are all barriers to top corporate leadership positions (Wirth, 2001) as they create unequal career opportunities (Straub, 2007).

Instruments to promote women themselves to be part of boards range from policies to reduce work-family conflicts, and sharing of home duties more equally between men and women; human capital investment usually related to professional experience (e.g., education, mentoring, role modeling); and other talent pools (Mateos de Cabo, Gimeno, & Escot, 2011)..

Our study tries to address existing gaps in the literature on women on boards. Future research should focus more on barriers and instruments to overcome them. They will be of great use not only for academics, but mainly for policy makers and other influential actors involved in creating value within boards.


Complete references to the papers cited in this post can be found in the paper.


Patricia Gabaldon is an Associate Professor of Economic Environment at IE Business School, Celia de Anca is a Professor of Global Diversity at IE Business School, Ruth Mateos de Cabo is Professor at the Universidad CEU San Pablo, and Ricardo Gimeno is a Senior Economist at the Spanish Central Bank (Banco de España).