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Lack of Women on Corporate Boards: The Problem or A Symptom?

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Britain is inching toward following other countries (including France, Spain, and Norway) in introducing compulsory quotas for the number of women on corporate boards. There is no doubt that in boardrooms around the world, women are in short supply. Clearly - and unfortunately - gender equality is still a long way off, and there is only slow progress toward achieving it.

And so, it is not hard to argue that an increase in the number of women on boards is long overdue and a potential positive. There have even been some research studies that have shown organizations perform better when they have women on their boards. But in many respects, the problem is not the lack of women on boards; that's the symptom. The fundamental board membership problem is the lack of diverse voices - regardless of gender - on the major corporate boards in the U. S. and globally.

Too much of the same

All too many boards essentially have multiple CEO voices rather than voices that represent different points of view and perspectives on social responsibility, management and the environment. Simply stated, the same types of people are on most boards: typically white males, but even more importantly typically executives who have been brought up in the culture of large corporations and have spent their lives focused on creating shareholder financial value. Missing from most boards are members who represent stakeholders other than investors. No one represents the employees; no one represents the environment; and no one represents the communities in which the corporations operate. Because of the membership structure of most boards, many critical issues simply do not get raised and discussed.

Diversity drives sustainability

Simply adding women who have had corporate careers and experiences will not increase the diversity of the voices that are heard in the boardroom. That can only be achieved by placing individuals from more diverse backgrounds on boards.

The best way to break the monopoly of CEO-minded board members with respect to board seats is not to mandate that a certain percentage of board members must be women, as has been done in Europe, but to mandate true elections for board seats. There has been some movement in this direction in the U. S. over the last few years, but we're still far from open elections that would make it possible for candidates who represent different backgrounds to appear on the ballot.

This is where change is needed - not in mandating that certain groups (i.e. women) be represented on the board. And if it doesn't happen, I'm afraid that many of these organizations simply will not thrive in the long term.

Edward E. Lawler III is a distinguished professor of business at the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business and founder/director of the University's Center for Effective Organizations (CEO), one of the country's leading management research organizations. He's authored more than 40 books, including his most recent -- Management Reset: Organizing for Sustainable Effectiveness (Jossey-Bass, March 2011).

Cross-posted from Forbes.com