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date: 14 October 2019

Women in the Upper Echelons: Women on Corporate Boards and in Top Management Teams

Summary and Keywords

In light of the growing number of women in the upper echelons, it is necessary to integrate and synthesize research on women at the top of corporations. The extant literature occurs in several disciplines—appearing in the fields of management, strategy, finance, economics, organizational behavior, ethics, sociology, and industrial relations—and is disparate and fragmented. A large and growing set of scholars provide various theoretical perspectives and empirical findings addressing organizational demographics, supply side factors, and outcomes. A number of theories are employed to understand the issue of women in the upper echelons, including resource dependence, tokenism and critical mass, glass cliff, social identity, human capital, social capital, and signaling theories. Most articles use U.S. data and tend to deal with the effect of female CEOs or that of female representation on corporate boards and top management teams (TMTs) on various firm-level outcomes. The majority of the studies investigate a potential relationship between gender diversity and financial performance. Research on this topic can guide policy and practice, improving the performance of organizations and the individuals who work within them.

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. For example, General Motors recently promoted Mary Barra as CEO; Meg Whitman is at the helm of HP following a long career as CEO at eBay, and Sheryl Sandberg was appointed Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) and the firm’s first female corporate board director in 2012. 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 500 firms came in at 0, 8.7, and 9.5%, respectively (Catalyst, 1995). Today, those numbers have risen, albeit slowly, to 4.6, 14.6, and 16.9 percent (Catalyst, 2015). Across the world, women’s share of CEO and director positions ranges from 0 to 9% and 0 to 40% respectively (Catalyst, 2015). For example, according to Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Global (2014), Liv Garfield was appointed as CEO in 2014 at Severn Trent, a British water company, becoming the youngest female executive on the FTSE 100. Also, Ana Botín was recently selected to be the Chair of Banco Santander, one of the biggest Spanish banking groups with $1.5 trillion in assets. 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.

The high numbers of female directors on corporate boards, which might in part be due to gender quotas that have been adopted in 13 countries and 2 regions, appear in most country codes of good governance, and are under policy consideration in many other countries (Terjesen, Aguilera, & Lorenz, 2015; Terjesen & Sealy, 2016). 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. 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, 2016). 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. The first section develops an organizing framework to analyze the field’s current status. 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.

Organizing Framework: Current Status of Women in the Upper Echelons

We conducted an extensive review of the literature on women in the upper echelons. We used ProQuest, Social Science Research Network, LexisNexis, and Google Scholar search engines to identify studies on women on boards and women in top management teams. We chose to limit our sources to peer-reviewed management journals. Our search terms included gender diversity, gender composition, upper echelons, women on boards, woman/female CEO, women/female directors, and women/female executives. The Appendix provides a summary of some of the exemplary research published in leading management journals.

Given the fragmented nature of research on women in the upper echelons and on corporate boards, we develop an organizing framework (see Table 1), which encompasses theoretical perspectives, empirical evidence related to the supply of candidates for top positions, organizational demographics, and the relevance of top executives’ gender for corporate outcomes.

Table 1. The Strategic Role of Women in the Upper Echelons and on Corporate Boards of Directors: Review Structure

Theoretical Perspectives

Supply Side

Organizational Demographics


  • Upper echelons

  • Resource dependence

  • Resource-based view

  • Tokenism

  • Critical mass

  • Glass cliff

  • Social identity

  • Human capital

  • Social capital

  • Signaling

  • Individual characteristics

  • Firm characteristics (performance, size)

  • Industry characteristics

  • Country, environment, institutions

  • Demographics (age, education, family status)

  • Work experience (years, industry)

  • Board of director (committee membership/leadership, insider or outsider)

  • Personality (risk propensity, persistence, moral compass, multi-task)

  • Firm performance (short or long term: ROE, ROA, ROCE)

  • Decision making

  • CSR: concern for stakeholders

  • Family concern

  • Symbol perceived by other women

  • Initiatives to help other women

Theoretical Perspectives

A number of theories address issues relevant to women’s representation, treatment, quality of functioning, and strategic role in TMTs and on boards of directors, including theories of upper echelons, resource dependence, resource-based view, tokenism, critical mass, glass cliff, social identity, human capital, social capital, signaling, and institutions. Upper echelons theory (Hambrick & Mason, 1984) posits that firms’ strategic choices and performance may be explained by their top managers’ demographic characteristics. Hambrick (2007) argues that executives’ experiences, values, and personalities substantially affect their cognitive frames, such as information seeking and information evaluation processes, which in turn affect their choices. Because it is difficult to capture directors’ cognitive frames, extant research on boards drawing on upper echelons theory has employed observable characteristics such as gender or race as proxies for cognitive frames. Based on this insight, scholars have argued that women’s unique knowledge, experience, and values not only expand the pool of information for decision making but also affect how decisions are made (Dutton & Duncan, 1987; Larkey, 1996; Sutcliffe, 1994; Watson, Kumar, & Michaelsen, 1993). Resource dependence (Hillman, Withers, & Collins, 2009; Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978) is frequently used to describe the assets that female executives and directors bring to their companies (e.g., Singh, Terjesen, & Vinnicombe, 2008; Terjesen, Couto, & Francisco, 2015) to reduce environmental uncertainty and reflect environmental needs, often in terms of their network connections. Richard (2000) employs a more internally focused Resource-based view (Barney, 1986, 1991) 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). Others examining the relationship between board-level demographic diversity with firm financial performance have employed resource-based arguments to show positive correlations (e.g., Erhardt, Werbel, & Shrader, 2003).

Tokenism (Kanter, 1977a) refers to the theoretical perspective that suggests that organizations may appoint a small number of people from underrepresented groups (i.e., women, racial minorities) to high-level positions (e.g., TMTs, corporate boards) only to give the appearance of equality within their organizations. The goal of this symbolic effort is usually to satisfy external constituencies (i.e., shareholders, media) and attract more investors. Due to the paucity and low status of tokens, tokenism is highly related to constrained opportunities and low power, which in turn compromise or diminish the tokens’ influence and effectiveness in their groups (Kanter, 1977a). Critical mass theory (Granovetter, 1978; Kanter, 1977a, 1977b, 1987) 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. This eventually contributes to effective outcomes such as consideration of a greater range of perspectives and improved group deliberation (Broome, Conley, & Krawiec, 2011; Konrad, Kramer, & Erkut, 2008). There is no agreed number for critical mass. In some of the seminal work, Rosabeth Moss Kanter (1977a) 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 (2011) show that a critical mass of women (i.e., three female directors) enhances the level of firm innovation. Glass cliff theory (Ryan & Haslam, 2005, 2007) suggests that women are frequently appointed to precarious positions, including as CEOs and board directors of companies that are in a performance decline. Glass cliff theory provides a helpful framework for understanding the appointment of a female CEO. Cook and Glass (2014) recently demonstrate that firms facing precarious situations are likely to appoint female CEOs over male CEOs, compared to firms in good situations. Social identity theory (Tajfel & Terner, 1986; Tsui, Egan, & O’Reilly, 1992) suggests that an individual’s perception about oneself is derived from his/her group membership, which is an important source of self-esteem and self-identity. Social identity theory is an emerging perspective that examines the extent to which female and male board directors identify with certain social identities (Jonsdottir, Singh, Terjesen, & Vinnicombe, 2015). Human capital and social capital perspectives emphasize the roles of knowledge/skills and networks respectively, and are used variously to describe how women’s profiles differ from men (Singh et al., 2008) or how these are required to get to the top. For example, Hodigere and Bilimoria (2015) examined how human capital characteristics such as profession and age as well as social capital characteristics such as network ties and cohesion predict the odds of women’s appointment to the boards of public corporations relative to men’s odds. Signaling theory suggests that companies use women on boards to send signals to the market (e.g., Lamkin Broome & Krawiec, 2008) and to communicate with employees, including female managers and employees, that the company is committed to the advancement of women (Bilimoria, 2000; Daily & Dalton, 2003). 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.g., Terjesen, Sealy, & Singh, 2009). For more detailed description of theories, see Terjesen, Sealy, and Singh (2009) and Gabaldon, de Anca, Mateos de Cabo, and Gimeno (2015).

Supply Side Factors: Multi-Level Predictors of Women in the Upper Echelons

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. Although gender diversity at the top of organizations is increasing globally, women still remain underrepresented in the upper echelons. For example, according to Credit Suisse report “The CS Gender 3000” (2016), women held only 14.7% of board seats in more than 3,000 global companies in 2015. Several studies examine supply side aspects, addressing various levels from the board to the firm to the corporate community. At the board level, Elsaid and Ursel (2011) and Matsa and Miller (2011) recently demonstrate that the proportion of female directors is positively associated with firms’ selection of women in high-level positions including CEO. At the firm level, Hillman, Shropshire, and Cannella (2007) 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 (2014) 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. (2007) argue that network effects (linkages to other boards with women directors) have a positive influence on female representation on boards. 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.g., Cook & Glass, 2014). 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.

Organizational Demographics: Characteristics of Women in the Upper Echelons

Although Johnson, Schnatterly, and Hill (2013) 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. Generally, women in the C-suite tend to have non-business backgrounds and advanced degrees (Carter, D’Souza, & Simkins, 2010; Singh et al., 2008). Women tend to be excluded from the key board committees such as nominating and executive committees (Bilimoria & Piderit, 1994; Kesner, 1988). Women inside directors hold fewer external directorships and hold less powerful corporate titles (Zelechowski & Bilimoria, 2004).

For compensation and performance evaluation, research on gender and executive compensation reports mixed findings. Kulich, Trojanowski, Ryan, Haslam, and Renneboog (2011), using a matched sample of 192 female and male executive directors of U.K. listed firms, find that managerial compensation of female executives is not only lower but also less performance sensitive than that of male executives. However, Hill, Upadhyay, and Beekun (2015), using firms in ExecuComp over a 10-year period beginning in 1996, 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.

Quest for Outcomes of Women in the Upper Echelons

There is tremendous worldwide interest in the effect of women in the upper echelons and on corporate boards (Adams, Haan, Terjesen, & Ees, 2015). Most articles deal with the effects of female CEOs or of female representation on corporate boards and TMTs on various firm-level outcomes. 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.g., Campbell & Minguez-Vera, 2010; Dezsö & Ross, 2012; Srinidhi, Gul, & Tsui, 2011) and others finding negative reactions (Adams & Ferreira, 2009; Ahern & Dittmar, 2012; Bøhren & Strøm, 2010), no relationship (Carter et al., 2010; Chapple & Humphrey, 2013), or both positive and negative financial outcomes (Matsa & Miller, 2013). These incredibly mixed findings can be attributed to the use of differing research methodologies, measures of performance, time horizons, samples, and the lack of controls for other factors such as the insider/outsider status of the directors, and other contextual issues.

Another relatively large segment of the literature examines the relationship between women in the upper echelons or on corporate boards and corporate social responsibility (CSR) outcomes (Bear, Rahman, & Post, 2010; Boulouta, 2013; Fernandez-Feijoo, Romero, & Ruiz, 2012; Marquis & Lee, 2013; Post, Rahman, & Rubow, 2011; Walls, Berrone, & Phan, 2012; Zhang, Zhu, & Ding, 2013). 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 (2012) suggest that the positive effect of female directors on CSR can be expected only when boards have a certain number of female directors. Considering that many firms’ female directors are “tokens” (Kanter, 1977a) who exert little actual influence on their groups, future studies should build on Fernandez-Feijoo et al. (2012) by exploring the power of a critical mass of female directors on various firm outcomes including CSR.

A growing body of research examines women’s behavior as strategists. Research notes that women are different from men in ways that may lead to better decision making (Burke, 1997; Hillman, Cannella, & Paetzold, 2000) and monitoring (Hillman & Dalziel, 2003). Compared to their male counterparts, women tend to engage in more participative leadership and emphasize teamwork and collaboration (Eagly & Johnson, 1990; McInerney-Lacombe, Bilimoria, & Salipante, 2008), and generally hold their organizations to higher ethical standards (Pan & Sparks, 2012), perhaps due to their higher levels of moral development (Forte, 2004).

Finally, an emerging body of research addresses outcomes specifically related to corporate strategy and innovation. For example, Triana, Miller, and Trzebiatowski (2013) report that board gender diversity increases the amount of strategic change when firm performance is strong. Similarly, Nielsen and Huse (2010) 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. Furthermore, extant research argues that the mere presence of female members brings changes to firms’ strategic outcomes, disregarding power dynamics that may hinder the benefits of gender diversity. Future research should consider this power dynamic issue and address it in various ways (i.e., controlling for proxies for female directors’ power, such as tenure, business background, external directorship, and director ownership) when examining the relationship between gender and management. Research on the power dynamic could also extend our current understanding of the political processes promoting women on boards (see, e.g., Terjesen, Foust-Cummings, & Trombetta, 2017) to understand how certain actors (e.g., politicians, business leaders) are able to influence rhetoric and legislation to allow more opportunities for women to be promoted into firms’ upper echelons.

Data and Methodologies Employed in Extant Research

Based on our review, we note that the majority of the research still focuses on U.S. firms, although there is also a large body of research in the United Kingdom (see, e.g., Sealy et al., 2017). There are few comparative studies; those by Amore, Garofalo, and Minichilli (2014), Post and Byron (2015), and Terjesen and Trombetta (2017) 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.g., the gender board quota) or the informal culture (e.g., norms about women’s roles relating to work and family). Furthermore, the number of women joining the labor force is growing fastest in the developing world (Hewlett & Rashid, 2011), for which there is a considerable knowledge void with regard to women in the upper echelons and on corporate boards. Future research may also need to examine different types of firms in these countries. For example, China introduced special legislation called the “2001 Programs” that requires state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to increase the proportion of women on their boards and promote gender equality from 2001 to 2010. 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.

An Agenda for Future Research

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.

Table 2. Summary of Directions for Suggested Future Research

Theoretical Frontiers

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.

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.

Build multi-level theories.

Strategic Phenomena

Examine the introduction of quotas and “comply or explain” codes for board gender quotas: Which firms proactively respond to the quota, and how? How does the market assess firms’ responses as well as the performance outcomes?

Consider responses to stakeholder (e.g., institutional investors, lobbying organizations) pressure on firms to increase gender diversity.

Incorporate family embeddedness issues (e.g., husband/wife teams, other family status, work-family integration) in research questions.

Examine co-CEO pairs that include women.

Research Design

Utilize comparative cross-country datasets.

Consider unique contexts such as state-owned enterprises and national business environment.

Use matched samples of males and females on certain demographic characteristics.

Conduct experiments using women in the upper echelons.

Employ dual qualitative and quantitative appraoches.

Reflect on the linguistic turn: Evaluate communication strategies and discourse by gender.

Incorporate longitudinal data: short- and long-term effects.

Leverage new data sources in cooperation with public and private organizations.

Theoretical Frontiers

We strongly encourage that future studies be motivated by theory. There are opportunities to build on existing theories and consider new theories. 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. Glass cliff perspectives could be elaborated by examining a woman’s career trajectories after a “glass cliff” appointment, particularly based on whether she is considered to have succeeded or failed in that role. Social identity-based research could examine how directors’ identities change over time, and how this affects board relationships. Human and social capital research could examine board directors’ profiles longitudinally, for example, in terms of additional training and networks build over time. 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. Power frameworks may be used to explain how and why women differentially contribute in TMTs and at the boardroom table. Faultlines theory and research (e.g., Lau & Murnighan 1998; Veltrop, Hermes, Postma, & Haan, 2015), which examine divisions across subgroups caused by demographic and task dissimilarities (Lau & Murnighan, 1998), may be particularly relevant to examine how gender interact with other potential demographic dividers. In this regard, we recommend that future research will explore how the strengths of faultlines, which are related to various behavioral and power dynamics among group members, affect women in the upper echelons (i.e., the effect of faultlines on the inclusion of women in the upper echelons or on the degree of power women can exert in the upper echelons) using faultlines theory and methodologies. This line of inquiry could be extended to explore the relationships between surface-level diversity (e.g., demographic attributes) and deep-level diversity (e.g., one’s attitudes or values).

Preference theory perspectives could examine how women evaluate the opportunity to serve on a board versus other career and family opportunities. Contingency perspectives could elucidate women’s choices around pursuing board appointments. Another potential theoretical framework is corporate governance deviance, which explores how firms adopt over- or under-conforming practices relative to the national template (Aguilera, Judge, & Terjesen, 2017). For more suggested theoretical perspectives, see Terjesen and Sealy’s (2016) review.

In addition, we encourage future research to consider multiple theories and engaging in theory pruning (Leavitt, Mitchell, & Peterson, 2010) to determine the best theoretical explanations, including the development and testing of multi-level theories. For example, research could investigate preference theory perspectives while accounting for women’s human capital and social capital.

Studying Novel Phenomena

There are a number of novel phenomena that offer opportunities for future research. First, legislative and regulatory actions occurring worldwide to increase women’s representation on corporate boards of directors offer exciting opportunities for future research. In particular, the introduction of quotas and “comply or explain” codes for board gender quotas (Terjesen et al., 2015) are certain to increase the number of female directors in organizations. Norway was the first country to adopt quotas and is frequently profiled (Teigen, 2015); however, the quota process plays out differently in different countries (Seierstad, 2016; Seierstad, Warner-Søderholm, Torches, & Huse, 2017). Given the great speculation about the potential for the expansion of quotas to other countries (Kogut, Colomer, & Belinky, 2014; Sweigart, 2012), we suggest that researchers explore the consequences of this changing board context. For example, future research may examine which firms proactively respond to the quota and how, as well as how the market assesses this response and subsequent performance outcomes. Since such quotas and codes have become increasingly popular, replications of studies may be possible in multiple countries. Similarly, “comply or explain” regulations are also a fascinating area for future study (see work by Sealy, 2010; Sealy & Doherty, 2012; Sealy et al., 2015). Such legislative and regulatory actions of course pose ethical dilemmas, which are ripe for future research. In this regard, Terjesen and Sealy (2016) discuss the ethical tensions inherent in board gender quotas and offer a detailed agenda for future research.

There are other key phenomena that merit closer investigation including the role of stakeholders (e.g., institutional investors, lobbying organizations), proxy access and shareholder activism, family ownership and best practices in succession planning, co-CEOs, corporate scandals, and the global economic crisis. For example, regarding the last suggestion, prior to the severe financial crisis in Iceland, there were no women on Iceland’s largest banks—all of which failed. Following the financial crisis (and before the quota), women took the helm of Icelandic bank boards with 40%, 60%, and 100% representation (Jonsdottir, 2010) and are described as the “heroines of Reykjavik” for leading their firms out of the crisis (Carlin, 2012). Finally, in women’s lives, there are other competing needs such as care of immediate family, including children and elders, and this may shape strategy outcomes, just as research shows that it does for men (Dahl, Dezsö, & Ross, 2012). We encourage future research that investigates these and other phenomena that have been understudied to date in the literature on women in the upper echelons and on corporate boards.

Research Design

We encourage researchers to take current research designs to the next step by working with new data sources, such as data from national census bureaus that have individual data that can be linked to firm data. Furthermore, certain industry associations and government organizations retain data that may be used for research. As existing research tends to compare unequal samples of males and females, future research would be more robust with matched pair samples on the basis of age, industry, years of experience, and other relevant variables. Most extant research, especially in the board composition-financial performance stream, does not properly account for endogeneity issues (i.e., reverse causality and omitted variable biases). We encourage the conduct of experimental research on topics relevant to women in upper echelons and on corporate boards. Experimental research could be further advanced by more carefully incorporating elements that are relevant for corporate strategy, such as female responses to risk or others’ perception of how female leaders respond to risk.

Future research should also pursue both qualitative and quantitative approaches. In terms of qualitative research, data on the actual conversations taking place in boards and TMTs would be extremely valuable. The new linguistic turn in management (Vaara, 2010) could examine the unique communication strategies that women are believed to use. Finally, there is a need for more longitudinal research designs. For example, the literature examining the outcomes of national quotas and subsequent significant changes in the gender composition of boards (e.g., Bøhren & Staubo, 2013; Matsa & Miller, 2013) reveals extremely mixed effects and is all relatively short term.


Taken together, given women’s different qualities, perspectives, and experiences, the role of women in the upper echelons is critical for the organizations in which they operate. We hope that this article inspires meaningful future contributions to scholarship, practice, and policy. Dedicated research in the area of women in the upper echelons can guide policy and practice, improving the performance of organizations, and the individuals who work within them.


Summary of Research on Women in the Upper Echelons (Selected Papers)




Research Question



Key Findings



Dezsö & Ross

Strategic Management Journal


How does female representation in the TMT contribute to firm performance? How do strategically relevant organizational contexts moderate this relationship?


15 years of panel data on the top management teams of the S&P 1,500 firms

Female representation in top management improves firm performance but only to the extent that a firm’s strategy is focused on innovation, in which context the informational and social benefits of gender diversity and the behaviors associated with women in management are likely to be especially important for managerial task performance.


Firm performance

Hill, Upadhyay, & Beekun

Strategic Management Journal


Do female and ethnically diverse executives endure inequality in the CEO position or do they benefit from their minority status?

Theory on role stereotyping, resource-based view

ExecuComp, over a 10-year period beginning in 1996

CEOs benefit from their minority status to receive higher compensation than White male CEOs receive. The effects of minority status on likelihood of exit are significantly different for female and ethnic minority CEOs such that the former relationship is negative while the latter is positive.


Executive compensation and exit

Marquis & Lee

Strategic Management Journal


How do characteristics of directors and executives affect corporate philanthropic contributions?

Upper echelons theory

Fortune 500 firms from 1996–2006

Gender composition of senior management and boards affects corporate philanthropic contributions. Organizational structure constrains the philanthropic influence of board members, but not of senior managers.

Board of directors, TMT

Corporate philanthropic contributions

Walls, Berrone, & Phan

Strategic Management Journal


How do the relationships between and among the firms’ owners, managers, and boards of directors influence environmental performance?

The corporate governance—environmental performance link

Standard & Poor’s (S&P) 500 firms in primary and manufacturing industries (2-digit SIC code below 50), 1997–2005

Environmental performance was worse when fewer women sat on boards. When more women sat on boards there were fewer environmental concerns, especially when the level of shareholder concentration and institutional ownership were high.

Board of directors

Environmental Performance

Post & Byron

Academy of Management Journal


Under what legal/regulatory and socio-cultural conditions does female board representation affect firm performance?

Upper echelons theory

140 studies

Female board representation is (a) positively related to accounting returns and this relationship is more positive in countries with stronger shareholder protections, (b) not related to market performance although the relationship is positive in countries with greater gender parity and negative in countries with lower gender parity, and (c) positively related to boards’ two primary responsibilities, monitoring and strategy involvement.

Board of directors

Firm accounting and market performance

Triana, Miller, & Trzebiatowski

Organization Science


How do board gender diversity, firm performance, and the power of women directors interact to influence the amount of strategic change?

Threat-rigidity; team diversity theory

Fortune 500 firms

When the board is not experiencing a threat as a result of low firm performance and women directors have greater power, the relationship between board gender diversity and amount of strategic change is the most positive. However, when the board is threatened by low firm performance and women directors have greater power, the relationship between board gender diversity and amount of strategic change is the most negative.

Board of directors

Strategic change

Carter, D’Souza, Simkins, & Simpson

Corporate Governance: an International Review


How do the number of women directors and the number of ethnic minority directors on the board and important board committees affect financial performance?

Resource dependence, human capital, agency, and social psychology theories

Firms in the S&P 500 index for the five-year period 1998–2002

No significant relationship between the gender or ethnic diversity of the board and firm performance.

Board of directors

Firm performance

Nielsen & Huse

Corporate Governance: an International Review


How do women directors contribute to the work of corporate boards?

Theories on gender differences and group effectiveness

A unique survey of 201 Norwegian firms

The findings suggest that (1) the ratio of women directors is positively associated with board strategic control, and (2) the positive effects of women directors on board effectiveness are mediated through increased board development activities and through decreased level of conflict.

Board of directors

Board strategic control, development activities

Torchia, Calabro, & Huse

Journal of Business Ethics


Does an increased number of women corporate boards result in a build-up of critical mass that substantially contributes to firm innovation?

Critical mass theory

317 Norwegian firms

The results suggest that attaining critical mass—going from one or two women to at least three women—makes it possible to enhance the level of firm innovation, and that the relationship between the critical mass of women directors and the level of firm innovation is mediated by board strategic tasks.

Board of directors

Firm innovation

Nielsen & Huse

European Management Review


How do women directors contribute to board decision making and strategic involvement?

Stereotype threat theory

Survey data from multiple respondents in 120 Norwegian firms

The findings suggest that women directors influence board strategic involvement through their contribution to board decision making, which in turn depends on women directors’ professional experiences and the different values they bring along, and that perception of women as unequal board members may limit their potential contribution to board decision making.

Board of directors

Strategic involvement

Adams & Ferreira

Journal of Financial Economics


How do women directors affect corporate governance and firm performance?


Unbalanced panel of director-level data for S&P firms, 1996–2003

Women directors attend a higher percentage of meetings than their male counterparts and male attendance is greater as the board is more gender diverse. However, the average effect of gender diversity on firm performance is negative.

Board of directors

firm performance

Post, Rahman, & Rubow

Business & Society


How does board composition affect corporate social responsibility?


Disclosed company data and the natural environment ratings data from KLD Inc. for 78 Fortune 1000 companies

Firms with boards composed of three or more female directors received higher KLD strengths scores.

Board of directors

Corporate social responsibility

Fernandez-Feijoo, Romero & Ruiz

International Journal of Business and Social Science


How does board gender composition affect corporate social responsibility?


22 countries included in the KPMG report

Boards with three or more women are determinants for CSR disclosure, produce less integrated reports, inform more on CSR strategy and include assurance statements, and the inclusion of women in boards mediates and moderates the effect of cultural characteristics on CSR reporting.

Board of directors

Corporate social responsibility

Zhang, Zhu, & Ding

Journal of Business Ethics


How does board gender composition affect corporate social responsibility?


500 of the largest firms listed on the U.S. stock exchanges and spanning 64 different industries

The findings suggest that greater presence of outside and women directors is linked to better CSR performance within a firm’s industry.

Board of directors

Corporate social responsibility


Journal of Business Ethics


How do female directors affect corporate social performance?


126 firms drawn from the S&P500 group of companies over a 5-year period

The findings show that board gender diversity significantly affects CSP. In particular, more gender diverse boards exert stronger influence on CSP metrics focusing on “negative” business practices, such as the “concerns” dimension of the Kinder Lydenberg Domini, Inc. (KLD) ratings.

Board of directors

Corporate social responsibility

Chapple & Humphrey

Journal of Business Ethics


Does board gender diversity have a financial impact?


The findings suggest that (1) there is no association between gender diversity and firm performance, and (2) there is a negative correlation between having multiple women on the board and performance.

Board of directors

Firm performance

Cook & Glass

Strategic Management Journal


What are the mechanisms that shape the promotion probabilities and leadership tenure of women and racial/ethnic minority CEOs?

Glass cliff theory

A dataset of all CEO transitions in Fortune 500 companies over a 15-year period

Occupational minorities—White women, men and women of color—are more likely than White men to be promoted CEO of weakly performing firms.

When firm performance declines during the tenure of occupational minority CEOs, these leaders are likely to be replaced by White men (savior effect).


Promotion probabilities and leadership tenure of women and racial/ethnic minority CEOs

Daily, Certo, & Dalton

Strategic Management Journal


How much have women circumvented the glass ceiling?


Fortune 500 firms, 1988–1997

While female representation on boards has greatly increased, there is no evidence of progress in the CEO suite.

CEO, Board of directors, TMT

Changes of the female representation in the upper echelons

Dixon-Fowler, Ellstrand, & Johnson

Strategic Management Journal


Does the announcement of an additional female CEO increase the perceived legitimacy of existing female CEOs as well as the firms they lead? Or does a negative contagion effect exist that casts doubt on the competence of female CEOs?

Legitimacy, contagion perspectives

Fortune 1,000 and Fortune Global 500 firms, 1991–2006

Media reports on female CEOs as a coherent group, whereas male CEOs are treated as individuals by the media. Investors’ perceptions of female-led firms not only influence the succession event–performance relationship at the focal firm, but also have a significant effect on the value of other companies led by female CEOs.


Market perception on female CEO

Kogut, Colomer, & Belinky

Strategic Management Journal


How do mandated quotas for women directors affect their network?

Tokenism, Homophily, Networks,


Modest numerical quotas generate well-connected networks of women directors who attain equality in their centrality and influence.

Board of directors

Women directors’ network

Kulich, Trojanowski, Ryan, Haslam, & Renneboog

Strategic Management Journal


Do gender disparities exist in executive compensation?

Gender studies, agency theory, and the leadership literature

A matched sample of 192 female and male executive directors of U.K.-listed firms

Bonuses awarded to men are not only larger than those allocated to women, but also that managerial compensation of male executive directors is much more performance sensitive than that of female executives.

Executive directors

Executive pay

Hillman, Shropshire, & Cannella

Academy of Management Journal


What are the organizational predictors of women on corporate boards?

Resource dependence theory

Data from the 1,000 U.S. firms that were largest in terms of sales between 1990–2003

Organizational size, industry type, firm diversification strategy, and network effects (linkages to other boards with women directors) significantly impact the likelihood of female representation on boards of directors.

Board of directors

Female appointment on boards


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