Professor Elisabeth Kelan is Professor of Leadership, and Director, Global Centre for Gender and Leadership, at the Cranfield School of Management, Cranfield University.

A chance encounter in the audience during a talk from the US former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, motivated a group of women to combine their formidable research skills and networks and produce a new report, Opening the Black Box of Board Appointments: Women’s and Men’s Routes to the Boardroom. Here co-author, Professor Elisabeth Kelan, named among HR magazine’s most influential thinkers, talks to RI Quarterly about the report and what it reveals about the current state of gender diversity in the boardroom.

Key findings

  • The number of women on boards is rising, but on average, there are still more men: 77% of boards comprise men, and 70% of all new appointees are male.
  • Success in gaining roles is largely down to networks and sponsorship rather than through any standard, transparent mechanisms. As a result, men target a wider range of boards, including non-FTSE and private companies, reflecting their generally wider experiences.
  • Women tend to have advisers who provide encouragement in their ambitions, while men are more typically sponsored into a position.
  • The motivations for men and women wanting to join a board are similar, although women more commonly talk about seeking greater challenges and wanting to develop themselves through NED roles. Instead, for men, the interest is in the chair, in the power and status that the role confers. 
  • There is no clear connection between a particular career background and the likelihood of success in seeking an NED role, but previous board experience is a crucial credibility factor for women.

The report suggests that women are looking to develop themselves through NED roles. Does this suggest that the corporate pipeline is blocked to women and that NED roles are giving them a way to gain experience and climb the ladder?

One interpretation of the research is that women cannot see themselves advancing in corporate jobs, and becoming an NED is a great way to advance a career outside the traditional executive pipeline. It certainly helped that there was a lot of discussion around women on boards and that this raised women’s aspirations for those roles. The research, however, also shows that the most desired candidates for board roles are those who have previously held CEO positions. In other words, the best way to become an NED is prior experience as a CEO.

One key takeaway from your report was that while there has been a steady increase in the number of women on FTSE100 and FTSE250 boards the processes and key mechanisms of board appointments are different for women and haven’t fundamentally changed. How much is this a problem?

It has been extremely helpful to have this scrutiny to increase the number of women on FTSE100 boards. What our report shows is that the board appointment process is still very much a black box and the mechanisms of becoming a board member are not as transparent as they should be. The focus on women on boards is helping to open the black box of board appointments, but more work needs to be done to ensure greater transparency in this process. 

The report also suggests that the motivations for wanting to join a board are similar for men and women but that methods to securing a position differ. Is this a legacy situation or do men and women simply operate differently?

We found that the underlying rationale for wanting to be on a board was similar between men and women, but that they would articulate this aspiration differently. We noticed that women were ‘leaning in’, possibly following the advice of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. The women we interviewed presented themselves as super organised and strategic networkers. By contrast, men were often ‘leaning back’. They would not say that they are actively looking for NED roles. Instead they often talked about casual conversations that they had in private members’ clubs over a glass of whiskey and how this lead to an NED role. This indicates that the mechanisms of finding board roles are gendered.

Although the report also highlighted that while there was little difference between the genders in terms of ambition, the talk about what men and women wanted from NED roles showed differences. How do you explain this?

In many ways, our interviewees provided rather typical accounts of how women and men are supposed to answer questions. For men, aiming for power and status is still more accepted whereas women would talk about developing themselves through board roles. As a society, we are still uneasy with women claiming hard power and status and equally with men talking about lofty self-development.  What the interviewees were repeating to us were socially accepted forms of articulating ambition. And those are gendered. 

 As a society, we are still uneasy with women claiming hard power and status and equally with men talking about lofty self-development.  What the interviewees were repeating to us were socially accepted forms of articulating ambition. And those are gendered. 

Did any of the results from this study or your other work on board gender diversity and the nominations process surprise you?

It is often suggested that because the percentage of women on FTSE100 boards has increased, nothing more needs to be done.  There is also a growing sentiment that white, middle-aged men are now disadvantaged. In fact, many men in our study reasoned that they did not find a board role because they are men. I find this most surprising. Firstly, our report showed that during the period under investigation men enjoyed the lion’s share of board appointments.  But secondly, only 26% of FTSE100 board positions are taken by women. Are we really happy with that?  For me it shows that more work needs to be done not just on boards but also on the executive pipeline.

As a woman (or a man) reading this report what should your considerations be when directing your career towards corporate boards? Which area would you want to see change, or how would you adjust your strategy?

The report provides some pointers on what to focus on and what we learned from speaking to aspiring board members. We also stress, however, that while getting a board role can be a useful and satisfying way to bring your experience to bear, it is not the only way. I would advise against discarding executive roles. 

In coming years, there will be an increased focus on gender in the executive pipeline and I would anticipate that we will see some changes  regarding  female representation in executive roles. 


  • FTSE boards are more visible, higher profile and attract women, but also pose greater competition. As a result, the report suggests that women need to widen their search to include board roles in various companies.
  • Candidates need well-placed sponsors to secure NED roles. Reflecting this, women should focus on sponsors and those individuals who have the power to leverage their own networks.
  • This also places the onus on those in a position to sponsor, encouraging them to leverage their networks to support both sexes.

Following the Davies report, the climate is conducive to increasing the number of women on boards, but the key mechanisms of board appointments have not changed. Networks and sponsors still play a significant role. The report suggests that women do not enjoy the support of high-powered sponsors to the extent that men do. This throws a question mark over sustaining the momentum of women attaining boardroom roles, indicating that more work needs to be done not only at the board level, but also on the executive pipeline. It argues that external pressure is required to change the situation, and that women need to enjoy the same sponsorship set-up as men.

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    RI Quarterly vol. 11: Proxy season 2017

    June 2017