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glass ceiling


Women are bored of waiting: Slow progress on shattering the glass ceiling on company boards

Published 18 January 2024 in Governance • 9 min read

A pipeline of experienced, qualified senior women business leaders exists – yet their selection for board positions remains far from guaranteed.

Why aren’t there enough women on corporate boards? Two of the myths that still prevail are that there is a shortage of qualified women and that the few who are qualified simply don’t network enough.

New research from IMD and The Boardroom demonstrates that these assumptions are at best outdated and at worst harmful to progress toward greater board diversity. The research is based on an opinion survey of 130 senior women executives in 18 European countries, augmented by 15 in-depth interviews. Both the survey and interviews involved women currently serving on boards of medium-sized companies to multinationals and those aspiring to get board positions.

More than three decades since Evan Kemp, then Chairman of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, wrote that “we are a long way from shattering” the glass ceiling, the route toward a seat on the board for women remains slow, opaque, and littered with institutional hurdles, according to our white paper No More Excuses.

The same arguments we hear today were used 20 years ago. Ten years ago, I still kind of believed them. But you can't use the same excuses anymore. The vast majority of well-educated people in Denmark are women now, and it's not last year they exited university.
(Interview with a senior executive with a board position)

So, what can we do to not just break but truly shatter the glass ceiling? From better networking opportunities to changing organizational cultures, we outline the steps individuals and organizations can take to speed up progress.

Women reflect on the struggle to be considered for board positions and agree some solutions

Talent pipeline: Supply or demand issue?

The process of recruiting women to company boards is often opaque, with more than six in 10 of those surveyed saying that how individuals are elevated to the company’s highest positions is far from transparent. But a strong and talented pipeline of women suitable for consideration for board positions does exist.

More than three-quarters of the women surveyed (78%) believe companies hide behind the claim they cannot find qualified women but don’t make sufficient effort to recruit women. This ‘supply or demand’ question is at the heart of the boardroom diversity conundrum and is a major frustration for you if you are a woman in business.


Diana Markaki, founder and CEO at the Boardroom – the first private club for women executives who are, or aspire to be board members, and IMD’s partner for this survey – says, “From my experience as a board member and at the Boardroom, together with what our survey also bears out, the historic assumption of a lack of qualified, experienced women is simply not true.

The larger issue is that people still simply bring in people like themselves. Women do not lack merit; what they lack is a close enough resemblance to the prevailing masculine perception of what leaders look like. Our survey – and experiences of the women of the Boardroom – therefore smash both the misconception of a lack of qualified women to serve on boards and the prevailing excuse that companies cannot find them. Women are here – and they are ready to lead.”

They wanted me for my brain; it was definitely not a token role.
(Interview with a senior executive with a board position)

‘I’m not a quota person, but things won’t change otherwise’

Senior businesswomen want to make their mark on merit, which is why quotas are such a hot topic. While many women dislike gender quotas, a large majority in our survey believe they are one of the most powerful levers to quickly achieve gender balance in the boardroom. So, while fewer than one in 10 said they had always been strong advocates of quotas, eight in 10 agreed with the statement that, “I’m not a quota person, but things won’t change otherwise.”

Governments agree, as the number of countries introducing mandatory gender balance requirements on boards is increasing. “My view on quotas has evolved over time. As a lawyer I would like gender parity in the boardroom to have been achieved through a more organic process, rather than legislation,” Markaki added.

Securing your way to the board

So, you are experienced, qualified, and part of that boardroom pipeline, but which proactive approaches to a seat on the board work best?

Prepare for multiple routes to the board: Networks, executive search firms, and solidarity

Our survey participants disagreed on whether networking or executive search firms represent the best route to the boardroom, and the survey sheds some light on where the answer might lie.

Women seeking board positions placed a heavier emphasis on the importance of executive search firms in getting them onto boards than women with existing board mandates (more than six in 10 versus less than four in 10 respectively).

The vast majority (90%) believe that better networking opportunities are key to success. One note of caution was highlighted by the survey, which indicated that half of participants say women lack the time outside normal working hours to undertake networking.

There is also an overwhelming expectation that women who occupy powerful positions show solidarity and recommend other women for leadership roles. This is very strongly reflected in the survey results, which showed more than nine in 10 (92.2%) want to see this happening.

As board positions are recruited for via several routes, women will want to nurture all possible channels and contacts – both female-only and mixed networks – as well as build their profile with headhunters to increase the odds of being identified as potential board members.

Women, when they apply for jobs, think they need to meet all the criteria. I am not a finance person, so previously I didn’t even see myself on a board. But I was asked by a colleague – and now that I have a board position, I see boards a little bit differently.
(Interview with a senior executive with a board position)

What organizations can do

The reasons why the glass ceiling is still far from shattered are many and varied, ranging from the perceived attitude and behavior of men towards women on boards, a lack of appreciation of the positive effects on the business of a more diverse leadership team, and societal issues which mitigate against the advancement of women in the upper echelons of business.

Consequently, the solutions to increasing diversity on boards are by no means solely in the hands of women business leaders. What’s required is the development of a more holistic approach – linking HR leaders, board appointment committees, headhunters, companies in general, and governments – to focus on cracking this problem once and for all. Here are some high-level suggestions:

Transparent board appointment process and nurtured networking

Develop a transparent board appointment process that proactively includes well-qualified women in the talent pipeline for these key positions. Companies should also facilitate networking opportunities at work to address the inability of some women to participate in out-of-hours networking. This is a simple, easy, but effective way to help women build and maintain these all-important networks.

Start thinking outside the box when looking for board members

Among the top-rated issues is the notion that women on boards change the dynamic in the boardroom and that organizations need to know more about the positive impact of diversity on the business. Getting ‘diversity on board’ in the truest sense will increase the quality of your decisions in the long run, and your board can better represent the pluralistic character of the societies you operate in.

Because people, especially in Western Europe, go very much for the cookie cutter [solution], they seek a financial profile, or the accountant, so people feel safe. So, they take what they know versus going for somebody who thinks differently, or who can bring in new thinking.
(Interview with a senior executive with a board position)

Get ready to act on quotas by establishing targets and taking urgent action

Government-mandated, legally binding quotas already exist in some countries, including for board representation. Under the so-called “Women on Boards” Directive approved in 2022, all big publicly listed companies in the EU will have to take measures to increase the proportion of women on boards as non-executive directors to 40% by July 2026.

Companies should also facilitate networking opportunities at work to address the inability of some women to participate in out-of-hours networking

Existing boards and CEOs of prudent, responsible companies will already be pushing for visible progress on this issue. Others will want to kickstart this work now, and this can be achieved by immediately mandating urgent action to diversify the boardroom. Leaving women board appointments to the last minute will suggest a company simply wants to comply and that it hasn’t taken the issue seriously over the preceding years.

Therefore, companies with existing targets for the recruitment of women to certain roles must also include, or actively extend, the targets to board positions. To ensure these targets are met – and ultimately to comply with quotas – companies must link these targets to concrete actions and deadlines – and assign specific responsibility for delivery to those in charge of selecting board members to make this happen.

Be part of the change to create more inclusive organizations

As the challenges are manifold, so are the solutions. Everyone can seize the opportunity to work every day towards creating more inclusive and equitable organizational cultures by role-modeling inclusive leadership. The obligation to meet a quota can also be an opportunity to kickstart a board-level inclusion program by engaging senior women and involving them in developing solutions to the challenge.

“Are quotas the best thing in the world? Probably not. But compared to business as usual, I guess it just gives a little bit of a stimulus. It can’t be business as usual, so quotas force the organization to think in a slightly different way.” (Interview with a senior executive with a board position)

In summary, Markaki reflects that despite the potential for organic change in companies, some will only act when they have no choice. “What we need is a change in culture and behavior. For this to happen you need critical mass, and the only way to achieve critical mass quickly is with temporary special measures like gender quotas. Because if we let social evolution take its course, we will effectively sacrifice the next two generations of talented, ambitious women and girls to gender roles and stereotypes. And since we haven’t moved fast enough on gender diversity to date, we have no choice but to bring in quotas.”

This article is based on the white paper No More Excuses by IMD in collaboration with The Boardroom.


Alexander Fleischmann

Alexander Fleischmann

Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Research Affiliate

Alexander received his PhD in organization studies from WU Vienna University of Economics and Business researching diversity in alternative organizations. His research focuses on inclusion and how it is measured, inclusive language and images, ableism and LGBTQ+ at work as well as possibilities to organize solidarity. His work has appeared in, amongst others, Organization; Work, Employment and Society; Journal of Management and Organization and Gender in Management: An International Journal.


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