A few days ago, Forbes ran (yet another) story on (yet another) study on diversity – or, more accurately, the lack thereof – in senior corporate management and boards of directors. The study by Calvert Group, Ltd (available here, registration required), Examining the Cracks in the Ceiling: A Survey of Corporate Diversity Practices of the S&P 100, found that women hold approximately 18% of director positions and only 8.4% of the highest paid executive positions within the S&P 100.
These numbers should not be terribly surprising, given the most recent Catalyst census of the Fortune 500 in 2009. Those figures show women holding about 15.2% of Fortune 500 board seats, 3% of Fortune 500 CEO positions, and 15.7% of Fortune 500 corporate officer positions. (Because larger companies tend to have more diverse boards, the slightly higher Calvert board figure is to be expected. See the charts from Catalyst included in this post showing the growth in these figures since 1995.)
Said Barbara J. Krumsiek, President & CEO of Calvert, "Without a pipeline of female and minority executives in highly-paid, highly responsible positions, it will be very difficult to achieve board diversity, which is critical to strong governance and good management." (Emphasis mine) As I’ve noted here repeatedly (see, for example, here and here), the business case for board diversity has not been empirically demonstrated, despite these frequent claims to the contrary. Lissa Broome, John Conley, and I summarize the most recent research here.
But I want to leave aside that empirical debate for today and focus instead on a different question: Can the business case for board diversity be made without veering into the dangerous territory of race and gender stereotyping? As we detail in our paper recently posted to SSRN, Dangerous Categories: Narratives of Corporate Board Diversity, it proves pretty tough for our respondents (corporate directors, plus a small number of other relevant insiders, such as regulators and institutional investors).
The paper is part of a Duke-UNC-Duke Power sponsored symposium on corporate board diversity held last spring, which I blogged about here. The symposium has produced some really excellent papers and responses, including a study by Frank Dobbin, Jiwook Jung & Alexandra Kalev that questions some of the Adams and Ferriera findings, another by Patrick Shin and Mitu Gulati on “showcasing” diversity, which Al blogged about over the summer, and which my colleague Kate Bartlett responds to here. And Don Langevoort’s excellent response to the Dobbin, Jung, & Kalev and Broome, Conley, & Krawiec papers. The other papers don’t appear to be up on SSRN yet, but are all excellent contributions to the literature.
But back to the question of the day: does the business case for board diversity depend on uncomfortable race and gender stereotypes? For our respondents, the answer is primarily “yes.” Our respondents were clear and nearly uniform in their statements that board diversity was an important goal worth pursuing. With a few exceptions, however, the purported contributions of a diverse board were at a level of detail that we would not expect to be the subject of boardroom strategizing. In addition, when pressed for evidence that would support performance-related arguments for diversity, respondents tended to back away from their initial assertions that demographic differences have functional correlates, frequently providing examples of contributions from female and minority board members related more to their skill sets than to any differences stemming from race, ethnicity, or gender.
This expressed reluctance to come to specific terms with general claims about the value of director diversity inspired our title phrase: dangerous categories. That is, while “diversity” evokes universal acclaim in the abstract, our respondents’ narratives demonstrate that it is an elusive and even dangerous subject to talk about concretely. The fundamental reason for this awkwardness is readily apparent: to argue that diversity matters in some specific way is to argue that diversity is a proxy for difference. Yet to suggest group-based difference is to open the door to both stereotyping and invidious comparison. Everyone in the debate has a vested interest in not walking through that door. Those who are not members of the excluded groups do not want to be heard to say that “they” are all alike, whereas those who are members do not want to point to fundamental differences that might be translated as “less qualified” or “needing assistance.” So we are left with narratives that simultaneously extol difference and express embarrassment with it.
One narrative that ran counter to this general trend relates to the corporation’s relations with employees. The categories of race and gender appeared less dangerous to our respondents in the context of employee relations. Both female and minority directors discussing their own role on boards and white male directors discussing the contributions of their female and minority colleagues seemed more at ease with a narrative of difference here. It is difficult to say with any certainty why this may be. Perhaps when race and gender are invoked as a means to benefit the professional prospects of other women and minorities either directly (through substantive action) or indirectly (through signaling or role modeling), those categories seem to lose their historically dangerous trappings.
In my next post, I’ll be back with a few examples to illustrate this tension (though you should read the entire paper, of course!)