The conundrum of choice: are targets for female board representation aspirational or achievable?

By Elizabeth Gammie, Head of Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University

The gender split of undergraduate and postgraduate students studying business related subjects at Universities in the UK is around 50/50 and female representation for entry level graduate jobs within the discipline also reflects this balance. However, in a similar vein to many of the professions such as law and medicine, as women and men in the corporate world progress up the career ladder the balance starts to shift in favour of men.

Failing to promote women to leadership positions wastes the valuable contribution that women make both to the corporate world and the economy as there is evidence that female representation on boards improves both company performance and ethical behaviour.

Equality feminism which emphasises the structural constraints on women’s employment opportunities, both at an organisational and society level, has often been cited in the academic literature as the explanation for this disparity. Subsequently, there has been increasing recognition that more needs to be done to remove any barriers which filter out the best of female talent from reaching leadership positions. Indeed, the government has recently prioritised equality for women, pushing for greater representation in business and for the provision of role models to inspire young women with their career choices. Whilst significant progress has been made with the percentage of women on FTSE 100 boards increasing from 12% in 2011 to 26% in 2016, ambitious targets have been set with an aim to reach 33% female representation by 2020 extended across the entire FTSE 350.


However, is this target achievable? A more recent explanatory theory for gender disparity, which is gathering prominence, suggests that in prosperous and modern societies occupational segregation arises due to the action or choices made by women.  Controversially, this preference theory indicates that women are absent from the top levels in organisations as they have the freedom to choose their own biography, values and lifestyle.  Women subsequently opt for one of three sociological ideal-types, home-centred, work-centred or adaptive, whereby they combine employment and family work without giving a fixed priority to either.


Evidence suggests that individuals who reach the upper echelons of their organisations are generally classified as work-centred.  This provides a challenge for the ambitious government targets for greater female representation at board level as previous research has indicated that only 24% of women in full-time employment are work-centred in comparison to 50% of men. If women are choosing to embark on a different career trajectory due to their differential lifestyle choices then it is difficult to envisage much further progress from the current levels of female representation. 


Critics of preference theory, however, indicate that this approach understates the social constraints affecting women’s careers.  Gender roles are stereotypical and deeply embedded in taken-for-granted organisational practices and structures and this is what drives the choice of women. Until these gendered roles are destroyed women are coerced into their lifestyle group and this is not a free choice.  This provides some hope for greater representation, as if these constraints can be broken down then further progress may be made.


We would therefore appear to have two opposing explanations for gender disparity.  On the one hand structural constraints and on the other, freedom to choose a particular lifestyle. In reality, of course, women’s preferences and structural constraints are not dichotomies but rather inter-relationships and therefore it needs to be recognised that women make choices within the conditions created and maintained by organisational and societal constraints.


So what does this mean for greater gender equality at the top?  Breaking down societal constraints will remain a significant challenge as recent research indicates a continuing presence of traditional societal expectations of both men and women. Much of this behaviour is conditioned as men and women are keen to emulate the positive experiences they received as children whereby the father had provided for the family and the mother had stayed at home or worked part-time to care for the family.  Lifestyle choices are therefore likely to remain divergent between the sexes. 


In order to continue the upward trajectory of female representation at Board level organisations therefore need to consider how they can accommodate high flying career trajectories for adaptive individuals as this is likely to be the only way to extend the talent pool of women.  Furthermore they have to consider how these higher level positions can be made more attractive to, and accommodate adaptive individuals. This is likely to require some cultural organisational change to truly embrace alternative and flexible working arrangements, to recognise that adaptive individuals who avail themselves of this flexibility are not opting out and finally to actively encourage adaptive individuals to strive for the top by providing appropriate pathways for them to get there.    


This post is in association with Robert Gordon University

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