Modern Management Challenges

Managing Diversity

Gender Diversity in the Boardroom: How to Increase the Share of Women on Corporate Boards?

Women have entered the labour market and higher education almost on equal terms as men; however, they remain underrepresented in the most senior positions, especially in the private sector indicating a “glass ceiling”. This is widely recognised as a key challenge for organisations and countries. Over the last decade a wide range of countries have put a particular focus on the topic of women’s underrepresentation on corporate boards and we have seen an influx of policies aiming to increase the share of women in boardrooms globally. Although there is an overall consensus that increasing the share of women in top positions is important for a number of reasons—which range from utility and business case arguments to justice and equality—there has been much debate, both across and within countries, around the unresolved question of which policies or initiatives are most appropriate for increasing gender equality on boards. Policies introduced are manifold and range from quotas to softer initiatives such as voluntary targets or comply and explain initiatives in national codes of good corporate governance.

A key question within women on boards debates is whether a quota law is considered an appropriate measure. This debate is and has been particularly prevalent in Europe; at EU, national and organisational levels. We argue that the debate is more complex than deciding to introduce a quota or not. In fact, in Europe we observe an array of variations both within the group of countries having introduced quotas (e.g. Norway, Spain, Iceland, France, Italy, Netherland, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Portugal) and countries having opted for more voluntary policies (e.g. UK and Sweden). Moreover, the achievements of the different policies vary. Quotas, and in particular quotas with sanctions for non-compliance, is an effective way to reach gender balanced boards. In this regard, Norway is the obvious example where a quota law successfully increased the share of women on public limited company boards from 7% in 2003 to 40% in 2008 following the introduction of a quota law with strong penalties for non-compliance. Nevertheless, some other countries who opted for soft/ voluntary policies, such as UK and Sweden, also achieved the desired change of better gender balance in the boardrooms. Spain on the other hand have not, despite having introduced a quota law (without sanctions for non-compliance), reached the goal set out in the law. What these examples indicate is the importance of a nuanced understanding of the design, context, usefulness and effects of different policies for increasing the share of women on boards. Hence, it is essential to acknowledge the design and the specificities of the different policies, country specific corporate governance systems, institutional factors (Terjesen et al. 2015), the role of actors pushing for change (Seierstad et al. 2017; Doldor et al. 2017) and other factors that may hinder and/or facilitate the access of women to boards, from both supply and demand perspectives (Gabaldon et al. 2016).

Our books (Seierstad, Gabaldon and Mensi Klarbach 2017ab) provide an extensive overview of the experiences with using different policies to increase gender equality on corporate boards in 16 European countries. Within the books, different policies are discussed within their specific contextual settings and we comment on the achievements and lessons learned from the different scenarios. A change in culture (societal and organisational) often requires more than encouraging and nudging, nevertheless, a “one size fits all approach” in terms of policy might be problematic. Our comprehensive edited volumes can help guide both policymakers and practitioners globally in relation to different paths to increase the share of women on boards and gender equality on boards and beyond based on the experiences and lessons learned from different European countries.


Doldor, E., Vinnicombe, S. Sealy, R. (2016) Accidental activists: Headhunters as marginal diversity actors in institutional change towards more women on boards. Human Resource Management Journal 26(3): 285-303.

Gabaldon, P., De Anca C., Mateos De Cabo, R. and Gimeno, R. (2016) Searching for Women on Boards: An Analysis from the Supply and Demand Perspective. Corporate Governance: An International Review 24(3):371-385.

Terjesen, S., Aguilera, R., & Lorenz, R. (2015). Legislating a woman’s seat on the board: Institutional factors driving gender quotas for boards of directors. Journal of Business Ethics, 128(2), 233–251

Seierstad, C., Warner-Søderholm, G., Torchia, M. and Huse, M. (2017). Increasing the Number of Women on Boards: The Role of Actors and Processes. Journal of Business Ethics, 141, 2, 289-315.

Seierstad, C., Gabaldon, P, Mensi-Klarbach, H. (eds.) (2017) Gender Diversity in the Boardroom: European Perspectives on Increasing Female Participation. Vol 1. The use of different quota regulations. Palgrave Macmillan.

Seierstad, C., Gabaldon, P, Mensi-Klarbach, H. (eds.) (2017) Gender Diversity in the Boardroom: European Perspectives on Increasing Female Participation. Vol 2.  Multiple Approaches Beyond Quotas. Palgrave Macmillan.

Cathrine Seierstad, Patricia Gabaldon and Heike Mensi-Klarbach are authors of Gender Diversity in the Boardroom: European Perspectives on Increasing Female Participation.

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