Women on boards – but what about performance?

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Lord Davies is right to put more pressure on organisations to create more balance in the boardroom. Not because it’s fair, or nice to have, but because it’s well-known that mixed gender teams bring better performance. 

Recent research from Grant Thornton shows that diverse boards outperform male-only ones. Other research has found the same - the most thorough of which is probably that from Credit Suisse in 2014 – Gender Diversity and the Impact on Corporate Performance.

That’s because men and women complement each other. What all those reports do not address though is why different genders complement each other and how to amplify that effect. The latest research from neuroscience and psychology can give those answers. 

  • Working style 

Women usually have a more consultative style. When proposing something they are more likely to phrase it in a questioning format, asking ‘What do you think?’ Men often have a more commanding style, instructing others what to do or stating a point. This much is already known. 

What isn’t well known though is that this is linked to how men and women compete. Men compete on being the biggest, the strongest, and the best. A commanding style confirms you are strong. It leads to clear and fast decisions. 

Women compete fiercely too. However they compete on relationships, being the nicest or the most popular. That doesn’t mean they are always nice; it’s just about being seen to be nice. A consultative style includes others and shows you value them, so it confirms you are nice. This style ensures a wide range of expertise is taken into account and creates buy-in for decisions. 

In teams where both styles are used all expertise is taken into account and buy-in is created. At the same time consultation doesn’t last forever and eventually clear and fast decisions are taken.

In reality women’s contributions are often not heard, as they were posed as questions or suggestions and do not come across as strongly. For chairs it’s important to allow women speaking time, and ask for their personal opinion. Just because women phrase things more carefully and inclusively doesn’t mean they don’t have an opinion. 

  • Taking decisions

Women often have a focus on people. When taking decisions they usually gather data from people who have done it before or from a wide range of stakeholders. They look for the impact of a decision on other people as well. This leads to feasible solutions where root causes are taken into account. 

Men tend to have more of a focus on statistical, technical or financial data and end results. Decisions can be more objective. 

It’s easy to see then that in mixed gender teams a wider range of information is taken into account, leading to better, more thorough decisions.

In reality women’s contributions are often dismissed as ‘soft’, and ‘hard’ data is weighed more heavily to take decisions. For chairs it’s important that they recognise the value of people data, ensuring that solutions are feasible from a people perspective too. 

  • Thinking

Women have more connections between the different parts of their brain. This often means they focus on the big picture and connect unexpected areas. They tend to ask more questions and are often looking for the reason why. Thus impacts on stakeholders are taken into account and new business opportunities are identified. 

Men’s brains process information more locally which can lead to a more focused way of thinking. That can result in a thorough understanding of a specialist area. Focus also means projects get finished and decisions are made. 

It is no surprise then that combining a connective way of thinking with focus leads to great ideas. Indeed, it is found that mixed gender teams are good for innovation. 

Women’s way of asking questions is often seen as disturbing; it takes up valuable meeting time. For chairs it’s important to recognise the value of those questions aloud and support the discussion in finding answers. 


Of course it’s not just a matter of adding a few women to the board and results will follow. There is a wide variety between individuals. Besides, in practice teams need to be carefully balanced in a number of ways. To create top performance requires careful team selection, selecting for individual traits. However, knowing about gender difference helps to understand which traits are most likely missing. Once there are more women in a team, it’s vital the chair supports the potentially different style that women bring. 

Once that is in place diverse teams really do bring better performance. 

Inge Woudstra is the author of Be Gender Smart – The Key to Career Success for Women and Director of W2O Consulting & Training. She works with organisations on female talent management, and specialises in gender difference at work.


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