Women in the inner circle: Board gender diversity after the fracturing of the corporate elite

Richard Benton

Contact: rabenton@illinois.edu

This paper investigates the tension between women’s increased representation in the “inner-circle” of corporate directors who hold multiple board appointments and heightened scrutiny on interlocking directorates. I argue that firms face a paradox between appointing female directors and eschewing highly boarded directors, among whom female directors are over-represented. Firms resolve this paradox by appointing highly boarded female directors but limiting their influence in the boardroom, both on influential committees and as channels of inter-organizational influence. As a result, female directors’ increased representation in the inner-circle has not generated increased access to power and influence in corporate governance. Analyses of nearly two decades of data on S&P 1500 boards document female directors’ increased access to the corporate inner-circle, but show that this access is decoupled from increased participation in influential board committees and opportunities to broker inter-organizational network influence. I discuss implications for theory on gender tokenism, corporate networks, and board processes.

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