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Q&A with David Matsa: Gender equality in the workplace

3 min read


David Matsa is a finance professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.  He recently completed research that found that companies with women on their corporate boards are more likely to hire high-level female executives.  SmartBrief asked Matsa about his research and what it implies about the corporate gender gap.  An edited version of his answers follows.

It seems logical that if lower and middle management becomes populated with strong women leaders, that more women in upper management will soon follow. Does your research indicate that this may not be the case?

Cracks in the glass ceiling can be made from both below and above. By looking at corporate board members and top executives on a panel of publicly traded companies over a 12-year period, we found that companies with a higher representation of women on their board of directors directly increased access to higher management positions for women within their organization. As the number of seats held by women increased, the likelihood that these boards would select female managers also increased.

Which of these statements is more accurate: “Women have taken great strides in the past few decades to close the corporate gender-gap.” Or, “A significant corporate gender gap still exists, despite efforts by women to close it?”

Women have taken great strides in past few decades to close the corporate gender-gap, but a significant corporate gender gap still exists. Between 1997 and 2009, we saw a 7.2% increase in women’s share of board seats (a 94% increase from initial levels) and a 2.8%  increase in the share of executive positions (an 86%  increase [from initial levels]). Yet by 2009, even though women make up half of the nation’s workforce, they only hold 6% of corporate CEO and high-level management roles.

What should women professionals take away from your research in terms of the best way for women to advance to upper-level positions?

The big takeaway from this study is the idea of “women helping women.” Women who sit at the boardroom table are in a unique position to propel female colleagues to the highest levels of management. Mentoring and advocating for women in lower-level positions can create better opportunities for female leadership and future management roles.

Why should men be concerned about research that demonstrates a persistent gender gap?

Both men and women should follow research on the gender gap because it is narrowing and is bound to have profound implications for industry. According to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, in 1970, women received only 3.6% of master’s degrees in U.S. business schools. Today, women receive more than 44%. The gender gap at the top of the corporate ladder will narrow as these women continue up the ranks. Documenting the pace of progress will be yesterday’s news; the next question for research is how the business world will be different when women are better represented at the top.