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Keywords: women in the upper echelons , women on boards , women in top management teams , gender diversity , gender composition , female directors , female executives. In recent years, growing numbers of women are shaping strategies at the helm of organizations. Industry-leading technology companies such as Yahoo, IBM, and Xerox have also tapped women to lead their organizations. About two decades ago, the proportion of women CEOs, executive officers, and directors of Fortune firms came in at 0, 8.

Proportion of women at senior management level shrinking dramatically: Study

Today, those numbers have risen, albeit slowly, to 4. In light of the growing numbers of women in the upper echelons TMTs and on corporate boards, this article integrates and synthesizes research on women at the top of corporations, and offers directions for future research. These regulations should—at least in the long run—have major strategic implications as firms must proactively respond to increase the representation of females in the upper echelons or face serious sanctions including delisting.

We also expect further increases on the supply side.

Bibliographic Information

Over the last few decades, a growing number of women around the world are pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees, and also joining the global workforce ILO, This increase in the share of educated women worldwide should gradually build up the pool of qualified women with relevant expertise and experience. Despite the upward trend in female representation in the highest levels of strategic decision making in organizations, the literature is extremely fragmented and lacks integration.

Specifically, research on women in the upper echelons and on corporate boards of directors occurs within several disciplines—appearing in the fields of management, strategy, finance, economics, organizational behavior, ethics, sociology, and industrial relations. Not surprisingly, the existing literature is disparate and fragmented. Thus, there is a compelling case for an integrative review that synthesizes this research in order to establish what we have collectively learned, better employ theoretical frameworks, and build a platform for deeper investigation.

Moreover, we hope our article will be valuable for corporate governance practice by synthesizing the literature for organizations and their female leaders, and to public policy makers whose initiatives concern the participation, advancement, retention, and leadership of women in organizations.

The present article comprises two sections. We discuss the relevant contributions, including theories and outcomes, and identify the common points, inconsistencies, conflicting predictions, and knowledge gaps. The second half of the article lays out a series of comprehensive research agendas to guide future scholarship on the strategic role of women in the upper echelons.

Specifically, we provide guidance about the relationship among concepts and theories within and across interdisciplinary areas. We conducted an extensive review of the literature on women in the upper echelons. We chose to limit our sources to peer-reviewed management journals. The Appendix provides a summary of some of the exemplary research published in leading management journals. Table 1. Richard employs a more internally focused Resource-based view Barney, , to develop the case for enhanced diversity in the leadership of business organizations in that firms gain enduring competitive advantage to the extent that their diverse human resource assets generate added value, are scarce, and are difficult to imitate particularly since the mix of knowledge from diverse individuals is difficult to duplicate.

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Others examining the relationship between board-level demographic diversity with firm financial performance have employed resource-based arguments to show positive correlations e. Tokenism Kanter, a refers to the theoretical perspective that suggests that organizations may appoint a small number of people from underrepresented groups i. The goal of this symbolic effort is usually to satisfy external constituencies i.

Critical mass theory Granovetter, ; Kanter, a , b , suggests that increasing the size of a minority subgroup to a certain point dramatically enhances the subgroup power, which reduces inequality between the minority subgroup and a majority group. In the context of organizations, the presence of significant proportion of women in TMTs or on a corporate board provides the women, a minority group in the upper echelons and boards, with more power and influence in group decisions.

There is no agreed number for critical mass. In some of the seminal work, Rosabeth Moss Kanter a defines one or two minority members as tokens, and many researchers assume that three or larger numbers can be critical mass. For example, Torchia, Calabro, and Huse show that a critical mass of women i.

Glass cliff theory provides a helpful framework for understanding the appointment of a female CEO. Cook and Glass recently demonstrate that firms facing precarious situations are likely to appoint female CEOs over male CEOs, compared to firms in good situations. Signaling theory suggests that companies use women on boards to send signals to the market e. Institutional theory concerns how guidelines for social behavior are shaped by prevailing rules, norms, and routines.

A large and growing body of research examines how certain local and national-level institutions such as lower gender wage gaps and a longer history of gender equality initiatives are associated with a higher prevalence of female business leaders e. It is important to understand the supply side of female appointment to the upper echelons as this perspective could provide a systematic approach to understanding the dearth of women in the upper echelons.

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Although gender diversity at the top of organizations is increasing globally, women still remain underrepresented in the upper echelons. Several studies examine supply side aspects, addressing various levels from the board to the firm to the corporate community. At the firm level , Hillman, Shropshire, and Cannella find that organization size, industry type, and firm diversification strategy are important organizational predictors of female representation on boards.

Drawing on glass cliff theory, Cook and Glass show that women are more likely than men to be promoted to the CEO position of weakly performing firms. At the corporate community level , Hillman et al. Current studies examining supply side dynamics are limited due to the small sample size of women in the upper echelons, including boards of directors and top management teams, which limits both the statistical power and the generalizability of the findings e.

As the number of female CEOs, directors, and executives has been consistently increasing, future studies could better address the supply side with larger samples, including privately held firms. Although Johnson, Schnatterly, and Hill review board demographics, there have been few attempts to synthesize the literature on the demographics of women in the upper echelons.

Understanding the demographic differences between male and female executives can help us grasp the differences in their behavior as corporate leaders and strategists. Descriptive statistics in many of the studies undertaken highlight some key findings about women in the upper echelons in terms of functional backgrounds, educational backgrounds, board committees, the number of outside directorships, and compensation. For compensation and performance evaluation, research on gender and executive compensation reports mixed findings.

Kulich, Trojanowski, Ryan, Haslam, and Renneboog , using a matched sample of female and male executive directors of U. However, Hill, Upadhyay, and Beekun , using firms in ExecuComp over a year period beginning in , show that female and ethnically diverse CEOs receive higher compensation than White male CEOs, due to their minority status. The results of the two studies are not comparable in that they use different samples and time frames. Taken together, the limited literature prevents us from drawing meaningful conclusions about compensation.

Most articles deal with the effects of female CEOs or of female representation on corporate boards and TMTs on various firm-level outcomes.

Corporate Trends

The majority of the studies investigate a potential relationship between gender diversity and financial performance outcomes, with some finding positive accounting and market reactions e. Here the research is generally in agreement that female representation on boards is positively associated with the extent to which firms are involved with CSR activities and outcomes.

However, unlike other studies, Fernandez-Feijoo, Romero, and Ruiz suggest that the positive effect of female directors on CSR can be expected only when boards have a certain number of female directors. Finally, an emerging body of research addresses outcomes specifically related to corporate strategy and innovation. For example, Triana, Miller, and Trzebiatowski report that board gender diversity increases the amount of strategic change when firm performance is strong. Similarly, Nielsen and Huse demonstrate that female representation on boards is positively associated with board strategic control.

Although extant studies demonstrate the positive effect of female representation in the upper echelons on strategic outcomes, most research focuses on the board of directors, leaving out female executives and female CEOs who may be equally or even more influential in organizations. Therefore, future research should be more comprehensive in examining women as corporate strategists.

Future research should consider this power dynamic issue and address it in various ways i. Research on the power dynamic could also extend our current understanding of the political processes promoting women on boards see, e. Based on our review, we note that the majority of the research still focuses on U.


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There are few comparative studies; those by Amore, Garofalo, and Minichilli , Post and Byron , and Terjesen and Trombetta are exceptions. Cross-country research is critical as national environments may play a major role in shaping the potential opportunities for women as strategists, whether through formal regulations e. Future research may also need to examine different types of firms in these countries. This legislation is one of the gender initiatives in SOEs in which women seem to be less represented compared with indigenous multinational enterprises MNEs as well as foreign MNEs operating in China.

This issue is particularly salient given the ongoing debate around the world about the role of women leaders and strategists in business and industry.


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  • Among the many directions that future research could take, we highlight three venues that we think will shed significant light into the strategic role of women: theory, phenomena, and research design. Table 2 provides a summary. Extend the frontiers of existing theoretical perspectives employed: Upper echelons, resource dependency, resource-based view, tokenism, critical mass, glass cliff, social identity, human and social capital, and signaling theories.


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    • Develop new theoretical lenses to examine women in the upper echelons such as tournament, pay dispersion, power, practice, faultlines, preference, and contingency theories. Consider multiple theories and engage in theory pruning to determine the best theoretical explanations. Consider responses to stakeholder e.

      Incorporate family embeddedness issues e. We strongly encourage that future studies be motivated by theory. There are opportunities to build on existing theories and consider new theories.

      Proportion of women at senior management level shrinking dramatically: Study

      With respect to existing theoretical perspectives discussed earlier upper echelons, resource-based view, resource dependency, tokenism, critical mass, glass cliff, social identity, human capital, social capital, signaling , scholars can continue to move these frontiers forward with new perspectives. For example, research using upper echelons theory could examine characteristics that are below surface level, for example, psychological traits or prior schema, to examine potential connections to board outcomes.

      The resource-based view perspectives could be extended to look at the role of social capital and networks. Tokenism and critical mass theories could examine how board processes change as women directors constitute a critical mass. Signaling theory perspectives could be extended to better understand how firms communicate the addition, or loss, of a female director relative to a male director. We encourage new research around theoretical perspectives not previously considered in reference to women in the upper echelons and on corporate boards, such as tournament, pay dispersion, power, practice, faultlines, preference, and contingency theories.

      Tournament models may be used to examine the competitions that women executives and managers must participate in to ascend the corporate ladder. Pay dispersion theory may be employed to examine gender-based pay differences on the way to and in the executive suite.