It may have been the worst-timed joke ever.
At an Uber all-hands meeting for the company’s 12,000 staff to announce how the board planned to address the findings of an investigation that confirmed Uber’s toxic workplace culture and serious instances of sexual harassment, Arianna Huffington, the lone woman on the board, noted that a second woman would be added to the board as one part of the response. “There’s a lot of data that shows when there’s one woman on the board, it’s much more likely that there will be a second woman on the board,” said Huffington. That’s when investor David Bonderman, another member of Uber’s board, blurted, “Actually, what it shows is that it’s much more likely to be more talking.” He claimed to be trying to lighten the mood, but in the firestorm of criticism that followed his ill-considered remark, he quickly resigned from the board.
One might think that perhaps in this case gender justice was served and now we can move on. But this controversy never seems to end. Following Bonderman’s resignation, Imogen Rose-Smith in an Institutional Investor magazine article asked: “What’s the value of gender diversity, anyway? Does the representation of women on corporate boards really improve corporate performance? What is Arianna Huffington doing on the board of Uber? She was quite happy to sit on the board for the last few years without changing the culture.” (Of course one can question the justice of placing the entire onus on Huffington, as the sole woman on the board, to change the culture of Uber.)
At the Center, mainly through our Africa Board Fellowship program, we think a lot about what makes a board strong and how to improve board performance. It is a long held belief that diversity in general – including gender diversity – improves board performance. However, new research finds that the presence of women on boards does not lead to significant company outperformance, calling that theory a “cherished myth.” This new research indicates that boards with at least one woman, when compared with all-male boards, perform the same or only very slightly better.
The IFC addresses this issue of women on boards with a number of articles and research. One of my favorites is called “Women on Boards: A Conversation with (Male) Directors”, which is a series of anecdotal interviews from around the world that basically say a woman on the board makes the board more professional.
Even if performance is not enhanced, nominating women to boards promotes gender equity and advances a society where both genders share leadership and power.
This recent podcast from Returns on Investment “What’s the value of gender diversity, anyway?” also wrestles with this issue.
What do you think? Does it help to have women on the board? If so, how? If not, why?
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