Women and their Relationship to Power: Taboo or new corporate governance model?

Women and their Relationship to Power: Taboo or new corporate governance model? Prof. Viviane de Beaufort, ESSEC Business School, tackles the question of gender equality in boardrooms and analyses the equation of women’s value for decision-making.

Prof. Viviane de Beaufort, ESSEC Business School, tackles the question of gender equality in boardrooms and analyses the equation of women’s value for decision-making and their relationship with power.

Women and their Relationship to Power: Taboo or new corporate governance model? by Viviane de Beaufort and Tom Gamble.

“Women have tremendous capabilities and fit well on boards.” Prof Viviane de Beaufort

Women have impact

While women still represent fewer than one in five corporate board members of Fortuna 500 companies in the US, with similarly dismal percentages elsewhere in the world, the dial is slowly shifting towards higher levels of gender diversity. Given the skills, experience and insight that women bring to the position, boards that fail to include more women, irrespective of legislation or quotas, are missing out on an important voice when making critical decisions that affect corporate performance.

But as the percentage of women on boards increases, is there an opportunity for companies to embrace a new mixed power model that blends the best of leadership, decision-making and capability on the one hand, and rationality, empathy and organization on the other? Research by Professor Viviane de Beaufort of ESSEC Business School suggests that greater gender balance can positively impact the governance model.

Based on a qualitative study that included interviews with Board Members, Company Directors, politicians and civil servants from France and abroad, Professor de Beaufort looks at the different relationship women have with power, whether a female style of leadership exists, and how women have the opportunity to position themselves differently to then promote different governance values and managerial practices.

Women and their relationship to power: Be the change you want to see

If women can shift from being a minority on the male dominated board, they may no longer face pressure to become more masculine in the way they exert power – and in doing so lose the feminine qualities that contribute to the ‘wealth’ of the Board – and produce a juxtaposition of opinions and personalities that make ‘good advice’. This viewpoint was expressed by 69% of the French and 78% of the international interviewees involved in the research, who felt that women have specific qualities or attributes for board membership. Here are some of the replies:

  • “Women do things for the good of the company and not for appearances. They have a real concern about making things move forward; they are less into politics and their personal positioning. They bring more objectivity and sense of the practical. Women are idealists and impassioned.” S. Ouziel
  • More collective, using less unverifiable assertions, more courageous, more able to think freely.”  D. Ernotte-Cunci
  • Capable of cooperation and compromise, better ability to anticipate through listening and intuition, better sense of the concrete.” A. Arcier

The results also suggest that women who seek positions of power and mandates on boards are more interested in a power to ‘act’ rather than power for power’s sake. Motivated by a strong desire for good governance, to have an impact, and serve the general interest, many respondents spoke of the collective exercise of power, advocating a non-executive Board set-up and run as a team.

Skills versus potential

One of the most striking findings, in an age of gender quotas and compliance, is the importance of having the right skills in order to justify their position on the Board. Women are often judged on their experience and accomplishments, whereas men sometimes have the privilege of being judged on their potential.

De Beaufort’s research also identifies areas in which the governance model should change, with the implication that stronger female representation would help achieve these goals. Many women consider that the current model is too financial, and not sufficiently operational, with HR policies and aspects including succession planning and technical and technological skills systematically lacking on the Board agenda.

They also state that while the issue of compensation is important, and should be linked to more demanding and specific performance criteria, the role of the board is to ensure the sustainability of the company and not just the income of Board members.

Gender diversity in the boardroom may be slow, but the benefits to the business are compelling. With a more consumer-oriented outlook, a focus on sustainable development, and both analytical and people skills, women bring vision, respect ethics, and are willing to change the status quo – all valuable contributions that would help overturn current public attitudes to corporations.


  • Compared with a man, how does the judgment differ when deciding on whether a woman qualifies for a board position?   
  • Is increasing representation of women on boards a solution for a more society-oriented Corporate Governance?
Viviane de beaufort ESSEC
Viviane de Beaufort

Professeur Viviane de Beaufort, Department of Corporate Law and Environment, Director of the CEDE (European Centre for Law and Economics), Founder of Women ESSEC EXEC Programmes. 

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The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.  

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- Africa: Stellenbosch Business School, South Africa; ESSEC Africa, Morocco. 
- South America: FGV-EAESP, Brazil.

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