Women on Boards: a classical comparison

A recent piece in Social Europe took me back to my initial education. I spent many -probably too many – years a student of Latin and Greek literature and history. Very occasionally we were asked to think about the cultural and political differences between the two supposed wellsprings of European civilisation, though at the time – we’re talking several decades ago – this would generally have been seen as too broad and unmanageable a question, ie not amenable to the narrow disciplinary boundaries which operated at the time. Now along comes a study which does just that – but in relation to women’s representation at board level today.

Audrey Latura and Ana Catalano Weeks have taken the opportunity to compare what happened in Italy and Greece when the former but not the latter introduced quotas for women at board level. The two countries share obvious characteristics: Southern European, with low female employment rates and low state welfare provision. Their study covers the period from 2011, when Italy unexpectedly passed legislation requiring women to be represented on corporate boards, up to 2019. It combines quantitative and qualitative analysis of the results from 96 companies in the two countries. The authors have combed exhaustively through over 900 annual and sustainability reports to detect the ways on which corporate policy on and attention to gender issues changed: not just pay, but also discrimination, child care and sexual harassment. They look across a full range of sectors, including oil and gas, finance, telecoms and insurance.

The research is detailed and rigorous – you can read about it in detail here. For me the key points are, first, that the effects in Italy started even before women actually arrived on the boards in greater numbers, signalling a broader cultural change. Secondly, companies took more interest in the talent pipeline – though it’s not clear to me just how far down the organisation this reached: was it just the pipeline for leadership roles, or did it involve reviewing career pathways at all levels? Crucially, the authors conclude that the effects over time on corporate behaviour were not only driven by the women on the board, but resulted from greater engagement by men in these issues. These relate not just to greater equality in leadership roles but more attention to broader issues such as child care. It remains to be seen whether this greater engagement by men extends to changes in male career patterns – the ‘reverse convergence’ which I argued for in the Paula Principle.

The paper contains a useful paper summarising the history of countries’ legislation on women’s participation on boards, pioneered by Norway in 2003. It seems that Greece has now, as of 2020, joined the party. The UK, notably, has not.

(For information, in case: the top image is Klimt’s Pallas Athena; the lower one is Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom.)

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