Board Smarts: Gender Studies
Certain factors correlate with more gender equality in leadership.
As a lecturer in animal ecology at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, Dominque Potvin knew there was a gender inequality issue in academia. In the Australian higher education system, women represent 44 percent of senior lecturers, but only 30 percent of faculty at higher levels, including in associate professor and professor positions.
What Potvin didn’t know, and what she wanted to find out, was whether the same was true for leaders of scientific societies. Her interest stemmed from her own board service as treasurer of the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour, whose board had 15 female and six male members. She wondered: Is ASSAB an outlier?
So, she conducted a study with a colleague, scientist Emily Burdfield-Steel. They did a count of women who sit on the boards of more than 200 zoological societies around the world. They also tallied up how many women serve in executive roles (president, vice president, treasurer, or secretary) at those same organizations.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Potvin and Burdfield-Steel uncovered gender imbalances reflecting the one in the profession: About one-third of all board members and a quarter of all executives at zoological societies are women. They dug deeper to determine if there were attributes that indicated whether gender equity was more or less likely in the ranks of scientific and association leadership.
“While it’s hard to pin down exactly what will lead to more female representation on a board, what we found in our modeling was that there are certain factors that make them more or less likely to be gender-equal,” Potvin says.
One of the main correlations for zoological societies with gender-equal boards was a mission statement, vision statement, or constitutional statement that specifically expressed a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Another was geography.
For instance, zoological societies in the Australasia region reported the highest percentage of female board members and executives—approximately 43 percent were women, followed closely by North American countries, with 38 to 42 percent. Asia lagged furthest behind at 18 to 22 percent.
Beyond these attributes, smaller member-focused initiatives—including family-friendly policies at conferences and meetings, formal or informal mentoring for women, and scholarships geared toward diversity—correlated with more gender-equal boards.
Based on those findings, Potvin and Burdfield-Steel published a gender equality checklist—a tool they hope more associations will use to improve representation of women.
“Remember that a lot of leaders in science societies are elected or nominated by members,” Potvin says. “This [study] shows that things that have to do with the culture of the society or values members hold directly reflect and influence top positions of power.”