07/24/2013 03:43 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

Dysfunction in the Boardroom

I'll be the first to admit: the conversation about women on boards has become a frustrating Groundhog Day repeat. Study after study is published year after year, demonstrating the same dismal numbers, eliciting the same frustration from women leaders, women's organizations, and other advocates.

For years -- decades, even -- women have been seeking stronger representation on corporate boards, yet minimal progress has been made in recent years. Research from Catalyst, McKinsey and others reflects that companies with strong female representation at top management levels perform better than those without. Gender-diverse boards have a positive impact on performance including a 35 percent higher return on equity, and stronger stock market growth. This solid evidence of gender-balanced boards leading to greater shareholder value is likely why we have seen some progress in the fortune 1000, however, in the United States, women hold only 16.1 percent of board seats in Fortune 500 companies.

It was with pleasure, then, that I read an HBR article outlining some recent research on the selection and appointment process of boards, and on the differences between women's and men's experiences as directors. In response to the lack of research in this area, Boris Groysberg and Deborah Bell partnered up with WomenCorporateDirectors (WCD) and Heidrick & Struggles to create a series of annual surveys to glean more qualitative data about the process and experiences around boards that goes on behind closed doors.

In a recently published study, "Dysfunction in the Boardroom," they reveal the findings from the first survey, including a profile of the female board member that emerged, what the directors surveyed had to say about the benefits of diversity, and about the dynamics between men and women on boards. Their study also shares some best practices for recruiting and managing diverse boards. Some key findings include:

More Qualified Women
The survey revealed that female board members often made trade-offs on their way to the top. These largely came with a greater personal cost -- in comparison with male directors, fewer female directors were married or had children, and a larger percentage of the women were divorced. In addition, across the board, women had to be more qualified than men to obtain a board seat.

Diversity Experiences
The surveys revealed a strong disconnect between female directors' experiences and their male colleagues' perceptions. Male board members felt that women were treated as equals and had an equal voice and participation in board matters. By contrast, women reported that they were not treated as full members of the group. This disconnect reveals a critical lack of cohesion at the top; if key team members do not feel fully integrated, respected, or heard, it's quite likely that the board in question is not performing to its highest potential. The clear opportunity is for boards to take better advantage of the diversity in the group, and to provide smoother integration for maximum performance.

Obstacles and Challenges
One of the most illuminating sections of the study I thought was the comparison between the four types of obstacles women report facing versus the obstacles men believe women face. A quick comparison:

Women believe that their obstacles are: Not being heard and listened to (21 percent); Not being accepted as an equal or as part of the "in" group (20 percent); Establishing credibility (20 percent); Stereotyped expectations of women's behavior (5 percent). In the words of one anonymous survey taker: "It's work to make sure the male members feel there is value in my opinion."

By contrast, male survey takers revealed that they think women face a very different set of obstacles, the primary being limited access to and acceptance on boards because of weaker networks and the old boys' club (33 percent). One survey taker explains, "Women's more limited networks have hurt their ability to gain access to boards." Other obstacles outlined by male board leaders include: Lack of experience and industry knowledge (28 percent); Bias and prejudice (22 percent); Having to work harder to prove themselves (14 percent).

This information largely reinforces my belief that boards -- even those that have female leaders in their ranks -- can be doing more to promote communication and processes to better leverage each individual member's contribution as well as the directors' collective intellect.

If you're a board member (male or female) does the "Dysfunction in the Boardroom" study reinforce your personal experiences? Why or why not?