Are women the ‘superheroes’ that corporate boards need?

Renée Adams explains why we need more research to fulfil the potential of women on boards

Renée Adams’ research shows that women can be the superheroes that boards need. But simply appointing a woman is not enough for them to realize their potential.

In recent years, many policymakers have rushed to implement new policies in corporate governance in order to improve gender balance. Between 2008 and 2015, 32 countries implemented legal quotas or other policies to boost female representation on boards.

The problem is, these policies don’t address the fundamental causes of female underrepresentation in corporate governance, says Renée Adams, Professor of Finance at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. Instead, the policies draw on research on the impact of gender diversity on boards that is incomplete and often flawed, she notes.

‘A lot of people make erroneous assumptions [about gender balance in corporate governance] and don’t dig deeply enough’, she says. ‘A lot of people over-interpret [the data]. I don’t think we’ve even started understanding what’s going on.’

Here, Adams explains why more research is needed to better understand how boards can benefit from gender diversity and to develop informed policies around gender.

Q. What is the common business case for gender diversity in corporate boards?

The business case suggests that adding women to boards is an easy way to crank up shareholder value.

Q. What’s wrong with this argument?

Many things. First, the business case evidence is a classic example of a result that is not robust. While some research finds support for the business case, other research does not. What this means is that simply appointing a woman is not sufficient to create value. We have to dig deeper to understand the factors that prevent women from realizing their potential. Second, the business case argument implicitly suggests that male managers are stupid for not recognizing that adding women adds value. The problem is that what happens in firms reflects what happens in societies. We need to think hard about why women are underrepresented in leadership and design policies that address those problems. Such policies can include pressure on firms to appoint more women, but they shouldn’t only include pressure on firms. And pressure to appoint women should never be justified on the basis of the business case argument. Why should women be held to a higher standard than men are?

We need to think hard about why women are underrepresented in leadership and design policies that address those problems.

Q. What stereotypes hinder female representation on boards?

People say ‘When it comes to women, we know exactly what they are like. They shy away from competition. They are risk-averse, and they cannot negotiate.’ The first problem with these statements is that people are basically saying ‘If there is a bad outcome for women, it is the women’s fault because they have these weird preferences.’ The second problem is that these arguments take a very simplistic view of corporate leaders. I will give you an example. There are many papers now that start with the assumption that female CEOs are more risk-averse than male CEOs. But I have a lot of problems with this assumption. There is literature arguing that women are more risk-averse than men, but it is not for CEOs. The women who choose to take a path that leads to a boardroom are not going to be the ones who are totally risk-averse. It is obvious once you think about it, so why do people assume female leaders are more risk-averse? Because it is easy. Admitting you don’t know means you have to do the hard work of trying to find out what women are like.

Q. What has your research revealed about the potential of women on boards?

When I present [my research], I say, ‘Look, here are the characteristics that superheroes would have.’ So, for example, risk aversion: superheroes should be risk-taking, right? Benevolence: you would think that a superhero should be benevolent. Self-direction: superheroes should be self-directed because they go out and save the world. On all of these dimensions, my research shows that women look more like superheroes than men on boards. In fact, women on boards are more like superheroes than independent directors are. But when we look at the outcomes, diverse boards don’t necessarily achieve superhero acts and women are not treated like superheroes. This means we need to dig deeper to understand what factors prevent women on boards from achieving their superhero potential.

Q. What factors might inhibit women from fulfilling their potential on boards?

This is really a big puzzle. The question is, why? I think we still don’t know. There could be many things that make it difficult for women to have an impact; it could be group dynamics, or it could be having a voice and cultural factors related to how men and women communicate. It could be creating unrealistic expectations to improve shareholder value simply by sitting in the room. It could be all sorts of things. The failure of the business case does not mean that women are not talented – that’s an incorrect interpretation. That is why I keep harping on the research. We need to understand this because we are leaving a lot of unrealised talent on the table.


In 2019 Renée won the Female Career Award from HEC Lausanne. This award honours twice a year an outstanding female academic career outside HEC and Renée won the 1st edition in 2019.