Corporate boards miss out when they don’t include women

Shirley Leung, Business Columnist for The Boston Globe has written extensively—and frequently—about the dearth of women on corporate boards. In her piece, “Across Health Care Board Rooms, That’s Madam Chairman to You,” she discusses the growing role of women on health care boards (nearly a third of Massachusetts-based hospitals have a woman running the board for the first time) and she compares the trend to the fact that only three percent of Fortune 500 companies have female board chairs.

In an earlier column from October 2013, Leung’s headline proclaims, “It’s not hard to get women on the board.” Leung cites local Massachusetts-based companies Akamai, EMC, iRobot, and Constant Contact as each having at least two women on their boards, which, Leung points out, “is a better track record than most Fortune 500 companies.” But it’s not all good news: “In Massachusetts, tech firms are among the least diverse with nearly a dozen categorized as ‘zero-zero’—having zero women in top management and zero women on their boards.”

MIT Sloan Professor Thomas Malone, who is the head of the MIT Sloan School of Management’s Center for Collective Intelligence (CCI), could easily argue that corporations are missing out on tremendous opportunities when they lack women on boards and in other senior leadership roles. Why? Simply put, Malone’s research shows that the collective intelligence of a group rises when there are women involved in that group. 

Strategy+Business spoke with Malone about the research generated by the CCI. “If there were more women in the group, the group performed better,” says Malone. “In general, the higher the ratio of women to men, the better performance.” Malone theorizes that the “most important factor in collective intelligence is having groups where people are good at perceiving one another’s emotions accurately, or, more generally, where they have high social intelligence.”

Social perceptiveness, as defined in the Strategy+Business article on Malone and the CCI’s research, is the “ability to discern what someone is thinking, either by looking at their facial expression or through some other means of human observation.” Research shows that women are more perceptive than men.

This research makes a compelling business case for corporations—that regardless of size or industry, they should make a concerted effort to ensure they have women on their boards or on their senior leadership teams. But, maybe it’s not enough to just have one or two women involved; Malone found “the groups with half men and half women had some of the lowest scores … it appears as if the highest scores go to groups composed mostly of women, with just a few men.”

Thomas Malone is the Patrick J. McGovern Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. He teaches in the Intelligent Organizations: Collaboration and the Future of Work program.

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