Women Belong on Corporate Boards. Let’s Stop Studying Why.

When we talk about inclusion we often get bogged down by the numbers: the meager stats on representation, how they fail to add up to the ratios we know exist in real life, and the number of times we have to keep having the same conversations. But how often do we stop to analyze the language used to justify it? How often do we stop to marvel at the fact that this is something we even have to justify in the first place? Lately, the headlines about ‘women on corporate boards’ seem to be popping up from all corners of the internet. Even the most perfunctory of Google searches on “women + corporate boards” yields an overwhelming amount of hits:

2016: Women in Company Leadership Tied to Stronger Profits, Study Says

2013: Having Women on Corporate Boards Increases Profits and Sustainability

2012: Fulfilling the Promise: How More Women on Corporate Boards Would Make America and American Companies More Competitive

2011: Board Diversity and Corporate Performance: Filling in the Gaps

2007: The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women's Representation On Boards

2006: Critical Mass on Corporate Boards: Why Three or More Women Enhance Governance

2002: Women Board Directors: Characteristics of the Few

Catalyst studies have correlated the presence of women on executive boards to increased returns (financial and otherwise) for those companies since 2007. They release updated versions regularly, and yet every few months a new one appears from a different institute with a slightly different methodology but always the same results: women on boards, as leaders in companies, makes sense. And it's been said for some time now. Organizations like the Thirty Percent Coalition have been building networks to ensure women are a visible and vital part of the corporate landscape, calling upon studies like this time and again.

“Clearly, financial measures excel where women serve on corporate boards,” says Ilene H. Lang, President of Catalyst. “[This] study again demonstrates the very strong correlation between corporate financial performance and gender diversity. We know that diversity, well managed, produces better results.”

But here’s the thing: “rise in profitability,” “increased returns on equity,” and “higher ROI,” are all terms used to define a woman’s value in a corporate setting. Like stocks traded or assets dispersed and maximized, women are sold as practical contributions to a bottom line, and the buyers are men. The very language used in these studies presupposes a male audience. They set out to convince a room full of men that making room for a woman should be their next move because it’s “productive” and “profitable.” This language equates women’s involvement in a company to a monetary asset, at odds with the argument that women deserve to be in the room in the first place. The reduction of women to a financial asset reduces their representation to a strategy. The thing with strategies, though, is that they are employed to reach a goal and then dropped once that goal is met.

Most of these studies focus on boards as a microcosm of a persistent issue within the work environment, but it’s larger than just a work problem. It’s about validation, and who gets to give it. What we do when we correlate a woman’s worth to her consumable output is take away the freedom to fail, a privilege that men exercise freely and regularly. Positioning the inclusion of women as a strategic decision, in any context, means they must behave like one; it means we are only making room for one, the best one. This is not inclusion, this is exceptionalism, and it only reinforces an environment where women are not inherently valued but instead merely allowed to participate when needed. It is a dynamic that puts the power in all-male hands and does little to command respect for the simple fact that women should be able to exist in whatever environment they choose to exist in without asking anyone’s permission to be there. Women shouldn’t end up on boards (or panels, or awards lists, or publications, or, or, or…) only because men have deigned to include them. In fact, that they occupy these spaces at all is often despite them.

We don’t need endless studies to prove women can do work, and we shouldn’t need a study to take a woman’s worth seriously. We shouldn’t need to be convinced, fiscally or otherwise, that women matter. They just do. It’s time to shift the conversation away from why public spaces need women, and ask instead why they continue not to have them. Women are necessary, whether they contribute to your bottom line or not, in the same way people of color are necessary: not because it’s a “smart” move or because it’s the “right” move but because they should always have been there. Where are the studies about why boards need men? Where is the data on how many men have cost companies money yet never had their roles questioned? We do not ask men to prove themselves to us before allowing them to contribute to society, women need to be afforded that same privilege.

Women taking leading roles in society is not a temporary budgetary fix nor is it an experiment. It should be the norm, always.