The ‘No Qualified Woman’ Fallacy

If you ask an all-male board of directors why there are no women in the room, the men there will tell you, as likely as not, that they’d love to include a woman but just can’t find any qualified female candidates. This “pipeline problem” is conventionally one of the main causes of the vast gender gap in America’s boardrooms: an inequity so deeply entrenched that federal lawmakers have considered mandating gender equality. Because boards tend to recruit people who are already directors or CEOs, and because there are already fewer women than men in those roles, it’s easy to claim that there are simply no women available for the job—even though plenty of women in corporate America are well-suited for it, whether or not they hold the standard credentials.

Now, a new survey from the WomenCorporateDirectors Foundation, executive recruiting firm Spencer Stuart, and Harvard researchers offers new evidence that the “pipeline problem” for women on boards is a myth. Huffington Post editor Emily Peck explains:

For the survey, male and female board members were asked what was holding back gender diversity in the boardroom. The primary reason cited by men (particularly older ones) was a “lack of qualified female candidates.” Very few women agreed. Instead they cited two primary reasons that women hold only about 20 percent of board seats. First, directors don’t prioritize diversity. Second, predominantly male networks of corporate directors fail to uncover qualified women. Men under 55 years old were less likely to see a lack of qualified women as a problem, naming male-dominated social networks as the primary factor holding women back.

“In [older men’s] professional life they didn’t come across a lot of women — that either reported to them or they met at business school,” Julie Hembrock Daum, a recruiter for Spencer Stuart who worked on the survey, told The Huffington Post. “They really don’t know them.”

There was a time when there truly was a lack of “qualified women,” for board seats, Daum said. That’s because the ideal board candidate used to be an active chief executive of a public company. And, of course, there weren’t — and still aren’t — many female CEOs. But boards today no longer confine themselves this way, said Daum, who’s helped recruit directors for Amazon, Walmart and Johnson & Johnson.