In this series of posts, I’ve been detailing some of the ways in which the gender undertones of the Yellen-versus-Summers-for-fed-chair debate resemble discussions we've heard about corporate board diversity. In my last post, I noted that a common rationale put forward in favor of corporate board diversity is the avoidance of groupthink and an ability to facilitate board independence through countering the insularity and “sameness” that can characterize some boardrooms. Yet, this supposed role of diverse directors is in some tension with two other strong narratives that emerge from our interviews: (1) the importance of collegiality and getting along in the boardroom and (2) the efforts undertaken by female and minority directors to fit in and conform to the prevailing boardroom culture – in short, to behave like, and be accepted on the same terms as, any other board member.
In today’s post, I want to elaborate on those efforts. Recall, first, the statements by Christina Romer, former chief of the White House Council of Economic Advisers under Obama, on the difference between formal inclusion and real influence:
“I was always officially where I should be,” Ms. Romer said of her White House experience. “When there was a quick meeting on the phone, or the side meeting, that’s when you felt like maybe business was being done or maybe I was being left out of things.”
Recall also that some of the concerns about Yellen (expressed through what Ezra Klein has labeled a “sexist whispering campaign against Janet Yellen”), have to do with her style, which has been labeled not “tough,” lacking “gravitas,” too “soft-spoken,” and “passive.” There is concern that she may not be able to handle the inevitable tough fights with Congress.
In our recent article, The Danger of Difference: Tensions in Directors’ Views of Corporate Board Diversity, Lissa Broome, John Conley, and I discuss the efforts of our respondents to look, speak, and behave like a director. All directors, regardless of race or gender, take pains to “perform” the social role of director, in the sense of presenting oneself in a way that is appropriate to time, place, and audience. Directors thus give careful thought to the way in which their questions, comments, behavior, and even their dress are perceived by other board members.
Though all directors gave some thought to the performance of their social role of director (especially when new to board service), female and minority directors were especially likely to report working hard at managing the impressions of other board members, putting colleagues at ease, and fitting into the boardroom environment. (In fact, our forthcoming book on this topic dedicates an entire chapter to the use by female directors of sports –playing, watching, and discussing – as a means to build rapport with board colleagues).
To illustrate, one white female director spent years adjusting to the male-dominated culture of one boardroom:
A: Right. But I’ll tell you something else. It took me several years to be comfortable at this board, partly because it was—the culture was so male—not just male dominated, but a particular kind of culture, and because I didn’t know it.
An African American female director gave a particularly detailed account of her successful efforts to gain the trust and acceptance of her new board colleagues:
A: [I]n being on the board at [company name], I’ve consciously forced myself out of my comfort zone because I knew I had to know these people and learn who they are and interact with them and so after the conclusion of the board meetings, I found myself looking around and I was saying, why am I always the last person here and that was a conscious decision that I had made. I hung around and I talked to people and got to know them, and that paid off because they felt comfortable with me. They felt comfortable calling me up and saying, “let me bounce something off of you.” They felt comfortable saying, “I’m going to sit beside [name of respondent] at the meeting today,” and so that may be my biggest success on that board, was letting them know who I was and letting them know we’re all on the same team, and I wasn’t that student who always raised my hand. I knew the answer. . . .
I would get there early because I realized that some of them got there early. If the meeting started at two, they were there at twelve. So I started coming early and have lunch with them in the cafeteria, so I kind of developed my little group. I knew they were going to be there, and I would sit at the table and talk with them and understood what the rituals were. Then they would all go to another little area and read the papers and sit and talk. And so you talk about— you have a board meeting, but then they go out to the parking lot and talk. I began to understand that decisions were not only made in the board room, but they’re made somewhere else, and so if I hadn’t stepped outside of my comfort zone, I would never have known that. (emphasis mine)
Notice, however, that this acceptance as part of the group came only with time, and only after continued efforts from our respondent. Though the other directors made no overt attempts to exclude her, neither did they inform her of unofficial group norms, such as arriving early to lunch together, despite the fact that informal board business sometimes occurred during these gatherings:
Q: But nobody came up to you and said, “Hey, [identifying director information], come a little early next time because we have lunch in the [company cafeteria]?”
A: Uh-uh. They didn’t. . . . Then after a couple of times they began to look for me, and we’re going to lunch, and so we had our table that we sat at and so I just kind of learned how to click with the group.
Q: Have you done that your whole life, worked hard to fit in to whatever group you’re in?
A: I have.
I’ll be back with some final thoughts in my next post.