Sucheta Nadkarni.

Female representation in top management

5 November 2020

The article at a glance

Firms that boost female representation at the top often use such ‘organisational licencing’ to become complacent in recruiting more women, says study …

Firms that boost female representation at the top often use such ‘organisational licencing’ to become complacent in recruiting more women, says study presented at the inaugural Professor Sucheta Nadkarni Research Seminar.

The study was presented 13 October at a webinar by co-author Dr Lionel Paolella, University Lecturer in Strategy & Organisation at Cambridge Judge Business School, in honour of a co-author of the paper, Professor Sucheta Nadkarni of Cambridge Judge, the Director of the Business School’s Wo+Men’s Leadership Centre who sadly passed away in October 2019. The webinar was the inaugural event in the Wo+Men’s Leadership Centre Professor Sucheta Nadkarni Research Seminar Series.

Here’s an opportunity to see his presentation and read key findings:

Hello, and welcome to the inaugural seminar of the Professor Sucheta Nadkarni Research Seminar series, hosted by the Women’s Leadership Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School. I’m Dr Jenny Chu, University Senior Lecturer at CJBS and Academic Director at the Women’s Leadership Centre.

Professor Sucheta Nadkarni was the Sinyi Professor of Chinese Management, and the first director of the WLC, and a dear friend and colleague to all of us at CJBS. Sucheta’s tragic passing a year ago was an immense loss to the Cambridge Judge community, to the WLC, and to me personally.

I was immensely grateful to her as a valued mentor and friend, and I was also tremendously inspired by Sucheta’s infectious passion for research. I’d always remember her infectious laugh when we were discussing our papers on governance and gender issues, and about our plans for the Centre, over, usually, a very delicious meal. In her memory, the WLC has created this research seminar series to honour Sucheta’s passion for research, and her generosity in mentoring junior colleagues like myself, and students, such as PhD students. Many of you, I know, are with us today, as well as Sucheta’s many co-authors, colleagues from the Academy.

Welcome to everyone. I’d also like to extend a special warm welcome to members of Sucheta’s family, and dear friends and supporters of the WLC, who are also joining us today. We have over 300 registrants for the seminar today I know we will make Sucheta very proud.

The format of today’s seminar is a 25-minute presentation, without interruption, followed by a 25-minute Q&A session. So without further ado, I’d like to introduce Dr Lionel Paolella, University Lecturer in Strategy and Organisation at CJBS. Lionel will present the paper that he was collaborating on with Sucheta at the time of her passing, “A Licence to Tick Off The Box: Female Representation in Top Management and Organisational Diversity Priority.” Lionel, you have the floor for the next 25 minutes.

Thank you very much, Jenny, for the invitation, and Tracey. I’m very happy to present this research. Started with Sucheta, and also my co-author, Priyanka, who couldn’t join, unfortunately, because she’s in maternity leave. So it’s a work in progress. I know the audience is kind of hybrid between academic and non-academic reports. I will try to be not very technical.

And it started, this paper with Sucheta, by the observation of a phenomenon that we see an increase of representation of woman in senior position, in senior leadership positions, but nothing has really changed at the bottom of organisation for female employees. It’s kind of understudied to realise that what happened at the bottom of the organisation. And I was working in a law firm context for another project, and it was a similar case with more female at the senior partner level, and nothing has changed for the first-year female associate.

And you find this idea in many reports, and many practitioner-oriented articles, like this one. A recent Grant Thornton report in 2019 showed that the percentage of females in senior leadership position has reached highest recorded level of 29%. A 5% increase over one year ago. And however, the challenges of women at the lower level have not reduced. We don’t know what happened, again, at the lowest level of the organisation. And when you increase the gender representation at the top.

So we started looking at what the academic literature says about the effect of women at the top of the organisation. And some studies said that a woman in a top management position is very beneficial. Research grounded in the Russell’s Dependence Theory, homophily theory, argue that greater female representation in the top management team has a positive cascading effect on the development of women employees across the organisation. Because you send a strong signal to prospective employees about gender inclusiveness. You provide strong role models for mid-level female employees. You increase the mentoring opportunities, and you reduce the gender biases in hiring and promotion when those same woman leaders are involved in this process.

However, in the highly male-dominated environment, which is still the majority of the case, across industries and professions, for example, such as law firm, accounting and consulting firms. This positive cross-lever effect may not necessarily hold.

And there is a similar stream of research based on social identity and value threat-perspective posit that in a male-dominated context, firms often select female leaders into a token position, because basically, they don’t want to change anything. They are more willing to protect the status quos. And in those contexts, senior women avoid helping junior women, either to safeguard their position, or to shield themselves from any potential backlash or resistance from the male majority.

So without female leaders, they adopt the majority trait, majority characteristic of leadership, meaning the masculine characteristics, to be more accepted in a male-dominated environment. And also, they want to avoid a backlash of being perceived as the diversity champion. So it’s not so automatic, this trickle-down positive effect of more women at the top will lead to more women at the lowest level of the organisations. So even if those two streams of research have contrasted results. More positive in some case, and more negative in others in male-dominated environment. They both share three blind spots that prevent us to explain more clearly, I would say, the cross-level gender affects.

First, in all this theory, there is no role of the male leaders, which are the majority. There is no role, clear role, of male leaders in this cascading effect, cross-level gender effect. And most firm in male-dominated environment continue to lack a critical mass of women in leadership roles, needed to tip the equilibrium with male leaders. Meaning that the focus on female action and female behaviour, is not enough by itself to explain this cascading effect. Because we don’t take into account the majority, the male, the majority group, the male leaders. The lack of power female leaders in such a male-dominated environment, may lead to cross-level gender influence there. And does [INAUDIBLE] well to pay off greater female representation at the top.

The second point is that literature has focused a lot on mentoring, development, mid-career female employees, employees that are already in the organisation. And there so, to reduce the gender pay gap. And none of the academic literature look at the impact of more women at the top on the recruitment for female candidates, on new-entry female applicants. And it’s very interesting, because senior female leaders, women at the top, are often not directly involved in recruitment and hiring practices at the lowest level of the organisations. So here we can insist much more on the organisational practices themselves and their routines, much more than the role, the behaviour, and the action of female leaders.

And the last point is that we know very little about the remedies for gender inequality across organisations. Again, because of this only focus on women at the top, forgetting the majority group, the male leaders, and the organisational practices, and more broadly, the context of the organisations. So with this in mind, as the research question, how does gender diversity at the top affect the entry of women at the lowest level of the organisation. So again, we look at the recruitment process, female applicants at the lowest level entry of the organisations.

And we try to respond to this research question by taking into account the role of the majority group, the male leaders, and more broadly, the organisational context. And we drew insight from the notion of what we call organisational licencing. To theorise– just to give you a snippet of the idea– to theorise that having greater female representation at the top, will give the organisation the licence to become more complacent, more lax about its gender diversity goals, and inadvertently create gender bias outcomes at the lowest level. So it’s an idea in the psychology, modern, [INAUDIBLE] the lever, that explain, when people engage in good behaviours, their joy improved, they enjoy their improve credibility, because of their good deeds. And this credit sharing make them complacent about their own biases. And then it bestows upon them the licence to engage in non-egalitarian actions without the fear of discrediting their positive image.

At the organisational level, organisational licencing occurs when an organisation’s display of good deeds to its stakeholders, the external members of the organisation that assess the organisation, gives the firm the licence to become much more lax, much more complacent, in expanding the efforts towards its goals. And it could be very different than the diversity goals, but here we use this theory and this insight for the diversity goals of the organisation.

There is a nice article, for example, in American Surgical Review, showing that hiring a Chief Risk Officer in banks and asset management funds, to convey the organisation commitment to control risky behaviour, lead actually [INAUDIBLE] desk managers at the lower level to take more risk, because again, we hire a Chief Risk Officer, we feel more licence to take more risk.

A second paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Castillo and Benard found that an organisation culture promotes meritocracy explicitly, managers in those organisations show greater bias in favour of men over equally-performing women in translating employee performance evaluation into rewards. So again, when you think that you promote much more meritocracy than your competitors, your peers, within your industry, you feel more licenced, and then you give more space to your own biases to perform and give unintended outcomes.

So in our case, we have a three-step process. Female representation at the top, which signals that the gender diversity goal is met within the organisations. And it credentials the firm gender diversity valuing behaviour. Because the female manager at the top, the top of the organisation, is always the most visible part for the external stakeholders. So they think that you fulfil your diversity goals. And then, that’s when the licencing effect rises. Organisations get into habit to ticking off the diversity quota, and calling it a job well done. So again, when you increase the female managers at the top, you are like, ticking off the box of diversity goals.

And then you produce unintended outcomes. You deploy much less resources and efforts to prioritise gender diversity. And the organisation become much more complacent in prioritising gender diversity at the lower level. So in a nutshell, we posit that greater female representation at the top is negatively related to female recruitment at the lowest level, and that this negative effect is rooted in this organisational licencing mechanism.

So now, I will briefly explain, and present a set of hypotheses. Again, based on this organisational licencing theory. So the mechanism is that increasing the visibility of senior leaders is perceived as a symbol of successful firm-wide gender equity policies. Then you meet your gender diversity goals. This creates an illusion of fairness among the organisation and decision-makers. And these illusions shapes the firm practices involved in hiring and recruitment practices at the lower level. And the organisation will deploy much less resources, much less efforts, and will be less likely to undertake sustained purposeful efforts to prioritise gender diversity initiatives, especially again, at the lowest level, that are not scrutinised by external stakeholders.

So we argue that the diversity credentials enjoyed by the organisation from increasing female representation in the senior leadership position, will give the firm the Licence to become complacent in the extent to which it prioritises efforts and resources to improve gender diversity at the lowest level.

So the first hypothesis that we wanted to test, is female representation in top management roles has a negative effect on the organisational priority toward gender diversity. That’s our first hypothesis, the direct effect of greater representation of female leaders at the top on the recruitment process of female applicants at the lowest level of the organisation. And then, we hypothesis about an indirect effect of female representation at the top on to the recruitment process.

The licencing effect of reduced organisation and diversity priority will hurt female hiring in lower levels position in two ways. First, organisation failed to promote proactive, targeted recruitment practices, and the literature has shown that when you want to engage in diversity and inclusion, you have to go the extra mile through focused efforts to expand the pool of female applicants for recruitment at the lower levels. If you just do your daily practices, and you’re taken-for-granted hiring practices, then that’s when the discrimination and the biases, the gender biases occur. So you have to go the extra mile.

An organisation, most importantly, failed to secure buy-in and accountability for managers responsible for making offers to female candidates. at the lower levels. Meaning that, when organisation fail to prioritise gender diversity, effort at the local level, the manager are less likely to buy into the goal of diversity. And without a clear buy-in, manager at the lower level fail to police their gender stereotypes and biases when making hiring decisions.

They see the frame diversity issues as only concerning the senior leadership position, and not concerning their own units. So here it’s more the indirect effect through the reduction of organisational diversity priority, the effect on the recruitment of female applicants. And we hypothesise that female representation in top management has a negative, indirect effect on the number of offers made to female at the lower levels, via organisational priority toward gender diversity. So it’s a mediation effect between the female representation at the top and the recruitment practices.

So just to clarify a bit with this graph. You have increase of female representation in top management roles. The first hypothesis, we said that that will reduce organisational diversity priority, because of this licencing effect, the credential that you receive, you’ll become much more complacent.

Here it’s kind of obvious organisational priority diversity has a positive effect on the offers made to female at the lower level. So that’s not a hypothesis, more the baseline. But hypothesis two, its more the indirect effect. You know, the indirect effect of female representation in top management unto number of offers made to female applicants at the local level through the organisation and diversity practices.

And then we have a last set of hypotheses about the remedies. What we can do to avoid, how to avoid this organisational licencing mechanism. While organisations have to signal clearly to key decision makers about system organisational priority, and securing the buy-in of managers. And gender scholars increasingly underscore that one of the significant barriers, holders to reducing complacency and gender diversity of firms, is the lack of engagement from the male majority group in diversity initiatives.

So we look now, at the male majority group, and the role that it can play to reduce this licencing effect. And the key thing, again, is the engagement from the male majority group in diversity initiative, like diversity committee within the firm. Because senior male leaders hold considerable power and influence in organisations, they are still the majority in the senior leadership position. We argue that their presence in diversity committees is critical to securing the buy-in and commitment from lower level managers and employees, particularly men.

And so, we look at the presence of male leaders in diversity committees. How can they portray men as diversity of champion. Because again, the presence of the male leaders in those committee, will frame them as champion of diversity, and sending the strong signal within the organisation that gender diversity is not only a woman issue, it encompasses all the organisation, and it’s a matter for all employees, male and female.

And it reduces disengagement and laxity of male managers that can thin down concern, and engage in this diversity goals. So diversity committees typically oversee diversity initiatives, set targets, and monitor the progress within the firm, and identify the remedy elections. So that’s why it’s, again, very important to secure the buy-in of senior male leaders, by having them in these practices within the organisation. And there is a lot of example in, again, in law firms. Or a nice quote of the CEO of a Unilever, Paul Polman, saying that you have to set targets, and to monitor them even on a daily basis. But again, to bring everyone on the table to meet these diversity goals, and not only the women. So we argue that the negative effect, we hypothesise that the negative effect of female representation in top management will be weaker when there is a presence of male leaders on the firm’s diversity committee. So again, to take the picture of the previous slide.

Here you have a moderated effect of presence of male leaders on the firm diversity committee. To involve everyone and to secure their buy-in. It will negatively moderate the direct effect, hypothesis one. So it will reduce the negative effect of greater female representation at the top, and it will also reduce the indirect effect. It will negatively moderate the indirect, negative effect of female representation in top management onto the number of offers made to female applicants.

So to test this set of hypotheses, we looked at the law firm context in the US. We have very comprehensive and longitudinal data about the 200 US largest law firm, from 2007 to 2015. Mostly collected from the Vault survey. That they sent the survey to a law firm, and they report their demographics, and they list all their diversity initiatives.

We also did 33 interviews to elaborate our quantitative evidence of the organisational licencing mechanisms. We conducted many interviews with male and female attorneys, from the junior level to the senior partner level. And it’s a context very suitable to test our theory, because it’s a highly male-dominated context. So the majority, the group majority, the male leaders may matter in this context. And there is a huge pressure from the external stakeholders, namely the client, of those corporate law firms, to increase gender diversity, but also racial diversity within the organisations.

So briefly, the variables. Our dependent variable, the phenomenon that we try to explain, is the number of offers made to female candidates to be a first-year associate within the law firm. The independent variable, the explanatory variable, is the number of female partners. The mediator of the organisation and diversity priority is a composite measure of two items in the survey that I mentioned. One is the initiative to increase number of women, the generic item, increase number of women at all levels, and firm’s development programme toward female associates.

The moderator is the number of male partners in the Diversity Committee, a way to reduce, maybe, the organisational licencing mechanisms. And we have a bunch of controls total number of offers made, number of partners, the prestige of the law firm, the profit, the leverage ratio, the presence of the diversity director, and location, fixed effect, year fixed effect.

So just to introduce you to, very briefly, the results. You can see a significant negative effect– direct effect of an increase of the female representation in top management roles onto the initiatives led by the firm toward gender diversity. Negative coefficient and highly significant. The diversity initiatives of a positive impact on the female applicants, and the offers made. And you can also see an indirect effect of an increase in female representation at the top, under your first male-to-female, applicants at the lowest level of the organisation. It’s significant and negative.

And we have two moderated effect. I listed only one. So the presence of male leaders significantly reduce the direct effect of more female at the top, and also the indirect effect of more female at the top onto to the recruitment of female applicants.

And just to graph this. The moderating effect, the remedy, meaning the presence of male leaders in the Diversity Committee. You see the red line, it’s when there is a presence of male leader in the Diversity Committee. The negative effect of having more women at the top, is smaller than the negative effect of female representation at the top, without male leaders in the Diversity Committee.

And I’m already running out of time, so I won’t deal with that. We can discuss this through the Q&A, but what was very nice in this study with my co-author, Sucheta, is that we interview 33 lawyers across all levels, and we have to imagine to know a bit more about the organisational licencing mechanism, and to unpack this black box. To capture finer-grind this mechanism, and we have imagined themes to explain the first hypothesis.

And based on the quotes that we got, we see that diversity is sometimes a kind of tick-off-the-box mindset, only accounting in large numbers framing, or diversity burden only on the female partners. And it does quote, for example, that diversity tick-off-the-box mindset, I think it goes back to the point that you have to really believe that to diversity workplace is beneficial, and not just something you have to do for press or just for PR exercise, or it’s because you have to tick a box.

I mean, you really have to believe that the law industry, in particular, was a very sort of homogenised industry, and that this needs to change. And you need proactive measures for it to change. So that means that you need, again, the support of the male majority group, and you need to take into account the organisational context and the organisation itself.

The same for the role of the male leaders presence in the Organisation and Diversity Committee. It improved the firm-wide awareness about this issue, at all the levels. And it shows [INAUDIBLE] under diversity, is not a female-specific issue.

So a nice quote about firm-wide awareness, “When male partner participate in diversity committees, I think there are some sort of positive externality that comes out of it. It helps with the awareness gap. Junior male attorneys, or even other male partner often not have enough awareness about these gender issues.” So that’s why it’s so important to bring the male majority group on board to meet this gender diversity goals.

And so, just to conclude, on this, we hope that our study made two contribution. Shifting the focus away from the woman, to the organisation. To the woman only at the top of the organisation. The literature has focused too much, we believe, about the behaviour, or the actions, and the motivation of women. And here, again, we bring the organisation back into this question, and we focus on the barriers to building talent pipeline within organisation, because we focus at the recruitment at the lowest level of the organisation, the first-year female associate in the law firm context, and that’s how you can build a pipeline. Because most of the research are focused on mid-level female managers, or the development, the mentoring of female employees, and not of female applicants, and new entrants within the organisation.

And to reduce this organisational licencing effect, a virtuous role of male leaders, it’s very important, again, to bring, and to think about the role of the majority of the top management team, meaning the male leaders. And they have a key role to play to reduce gender inequalities. And most of the gender studies, or the gender diversity studies, they focus only about women, and they never combine the two genders, male and female. And that’s why we tried to do in this paper.

Thank you very much for your attention. We are– please Jenny.

Jenny: You go ahead.

Lionel: I think now we have a Q&A session.

Jenny: That’s right. So Lionel, thank you. You ran a little bit over time, but my parts are under time, so you’re absolutely fine. Lionel, thank you very much for the insightful presentation.

Now we have 25 minutes for Q&A. If you have a question, please use the Q&A function at the bottom of your screen to type it in. Lionel will then answer as many questions as he can, within the given time frame.

As the participants start off typing in your questions, I will ask a question to start things off. Lionel, I’ll give you a softball question, how about that?

Lionel: Yep.

Jenny: I think a sign of a good research project, is often an unintuitive results. So here, you find that in law firms that have more senior female partners, they actually hire fewer female associates, and have a worse pipeline, if you will.

Lionel: Exactly.

Jenny: And which is unintuitive. You would think that companies with more senior female partners would be more focused on diversity and inclusion. So what you find also, though, is that the senior male engagement on diversity committees help mitigate this. So for me, male presence on the diversity committees is a signal, almost endogenously that the firm has a better culture for inclusion and diversity. So it makes sense that then, they would go out of their way to hire junior people to fill the pipeline. But as you said, some of these law firms are very ingrained, very old-fashioned, sort of male-dominated cultures. So for those firms that lack male presence on the diversity committees, what would you suggest in terms of enticing the senior male leaders to focus on diversity, and actually join these committees, and take it seriously, rather than just ticking the box?

Lionel: Thank you very much, Jenny. So, well, based on the empirical results, we see that Diversity Committee is very important, when they meet regularly on a monthly basis, on a weekly basis. So the first thing to do is, again, to put some male leaders within this committee. We didn’t find any significant effect for the diversity director. And it goes with the past literature that when you hire a diversity director, it’s only one person. Could be a female or male, but it’s more like showcase evidence for the external stakeholder. And one person can’t really infuse and diffuse these diversity goals within the firm.

Now it’s becoming more and more serious, and there is some improvement, but most of the time, or previously, what we see when you would hire only a diversity director, there is a decoupling effect that you show to the external world that we have a diversity champion. But internally, he or she has no power, or no grip on the situation. So what you really have to do, is to put some people in the Diversity Committee.

Now more and more law firms have a balanced scorecard, and some metrics to track the implementation of their strategy, and to monitor the firm. They have to put this kind of metrics, and this kind of goals in their brand scorecard. And as much important as the profit, their equity partner, or the revenue [INAUDIBLE], or the billable hours. It has to be the same level of objective in this kind of balanced scorecard for each partner, the head of the litigation practice area, the head of international arbitration practice area, to take into account this objective very seriously.

So again, to put these objectives at the same level as the others, and to be able to measure those objectives very precisely in terms of recruitment, in terms of monitoring initiatives, and so on and so forth.

Jenny: Thank you, Lionel. Appreciate that. I would like to now open the questions to the floor. And, Lionel, you see the questions that are coming in. So please, go ahead and answer them.

Lionel: So I will read at the same time. And maybe I won’t be able to respond. So, a question from AC, “In view of organisational licencing mechanism, how can a female mid-rank manager identify anyone in the senior management to be responsible for continuous career progression?”

Well, I don’t think it’s really related to the organisational licencing mechanism, but the best person in place to help mid-rank manager to progress in their careers, are the women or the male in those place, in those diversity committees, in those space within the organisation where those gender diversity issues are discussed. And I would say more basically, the track record of the person. Who is the mentor, who was the mentor of this person? That’s also a nice way to see if this person will be able to help, and to contribute to your career. But I’m not sure it’s fully related to the organisational licencing mechanism. We come back to that later, I think, because there is a follow-up question.

Can the licencing effect extend beyond diversity in top management? I don’t actually see the question. I’m going to read. “Can the licencing effect extend beyond diversity or hiring demands? For example, female representation in top management licencing the firm to pollute more? This past good deed of firms and you know, there are ESG demands.”

Exactly. So the organisational licencing theory can be applied to many different things of diversity. And very nice article, exactly about what you mentioned, the ESG objectives. That sometimes if you do a good deed, a good action, even in terms of philanthropy, or a circular economy in one of your manufacturer, you will be Licence to pollute more on the other side. Or to do bad thing on the other aspect.

And again, it’s unintending outcome. It’s more unconscious, because you become much more complacent about the organisational routines, I would say, because of I’m an organisational scholar, but the organisational practices, and the psychologists would say you become much more lax in your behaviour. And then, that’s how your unconscious bias come again, to pollute your judgement.

So a question from Shukran. “Hi, Lionel, thank you for an interesting presentation. As an idea, would it make it a more convincing story if you were to talk about unintended consequences of diversity initiatives, when explaining why [INAUDIBLE] at the top has negative associate with–” So I don’t know this paper. I will look at this paper.

It will be very difficult to measure the unintended consequences of diversity initiatives, but we started just with this black box that more female at the top reduce the number of offers made to first-year female associates in a law firm context. And then, it was kind of a black box, so we started interviewing people to know what was really happening.

And then we found some diversity initiatives, and what was very nice, I think, it’s this meditation effect, that because you tick off the box, you have much more female at the top, you reduce your level of diversity initiatives. And it’s at the organisational level, and that’s why we focus much more on this. Much more the unintended consequences, the unconscious biases that would we continually capture.

So Brooke, well for the testimony, “I practise law in large American law firm from 2006 through 2017. Discrimination was rampant and unchecked. Asking for equal pay resulted in my termination, and I wasn’t even physically assaulted. I wasn’t even physically assaulted, like several of my colleagues. It may be worth studying whether that experience is exacerbated, because there is no HR department, or management experience in law firm.”

Yeah. So I’m sorry about your experience first. But must of the law firm that I know, they have HR department, so it would be very nice, I think, to more for a regular organisational ethnologists or anthropologists to really go and study one, or two, or three key firms, to see on the daily routines, on a daily basis, how this discrimination happens.

The interest of our study it’s not to respond to your testimony. It’s more the firm level. When you take the 200 US largest law firm, you have this kind of structural effect, which we try to explain.

So a question from [INAUDIBLE]. “Hi, Lionel, thank you for an interesting– To what extent do you feel your study findings apply to racial diversity?”

Again, you can apply this organisational licencing mechanism to any kind of biases that we could have in terms of gender, in terms of racial diversity, in terms of social diversity. There is now a nice article, and I’m working on the class disadvantage within the same organisation. You can apply the licencing mechanism to explain unintended consequences for pollution, climate change, environmental issues, and ESG objectives.

“Thank you for your pos– I know the joint efforts between 2007 and 2015 were conducted before the #MeToo movement. How do you think you’ll find this might have been affected?” So actually, the quantitative part is before the #MeToo movement, between 2007 and 2015, and we interviewed people during the last two years, so after the #MeToo movement.

I think in the law firm context, I could say that, in any other industries, they are more and more aware of the gender diversity objectives, that the societal roles that they have to play now to meet this gender diversity goals. But even when they want to do good things, and they want to do things well, sometimes they fail the target, and that’s what we try to explain in this article.

“Any company in the world who could be a leader of best-practice case?” So in the law firms, Allen & Overy can say in the UK, are very serious about that. In terms of Unilever, they are very serious about that, again at the CEO level, to send a strong signal. You can send me an email. I will check more. If I have case studies of specific company.

Question for Christine. I’m not checking the time, Jenny, so you can stop me anytime now, please.

Jenny: I will stop you, but yes, we have immense interest in your research, and we have so many questions. Unfortunately, I don’t think you’ll be able to answer all of them. But go ahead, and maybe go down and see which ones you particularly want to answer. Or you could go through the list. However you want to do this.

All right, pick one.

Lionel: So I have a question from my colleagues. “Thanks. Lionel, great talk. However, I’m not sure I completely understand the causal relationship. If we have senior partners who are all male, before getting some females on board, you can assume they are biassed against women. When a woman joined, the same men appear to change their role, and become champions of diversity. Are you suggesting they lose their biases? Or so, who is they who make their decision? Once you get a lot of women on board top level, don’t they become they. They are now making decision. It’s not someone separate was deciding.”

OK, so maybe I was unclear. First, you can’t assume that there were only male partners in the law firms. In law firms it’s interesting, because at the first-year legal associates, it’s mostly 50/50. 50% of male associate, 50% of female associates. And when you look at the partner level, it’s 22%. And again, what we say is that when female are more represented at the top, those same male are not against women, but they don’t feel engaged in this diversity issue.

And so, they think that they fulfilled this diversity goals, because we hired more female partners. It’s good as a showcase to display for our clients. And they have this mindset of ticking off the box, and they become much more complacent at the lowest level of the organisation. That’s the main argument.

And also, most of the time, they are not in diversity committees, and that’s when you increase the number of male partners, that will improve the situation.

“Do the woman, once on top, develop any biases towards more women?” So there are some empirical research claiming this. It’s called the Queen Bee Effect. That because they are in the minority, they want too much, and they want to adopt the majority characteristics of the masculine leadership trend. They don’t want to be associated with the same sex, same dominated sex, the female. So they become even harsher than the male leaders. But again, here we try to depart from this psychological explanation, and to see much more the organisational practices. And the entire role of the organisation.

There are too many question, and I’m very bad at this.

Jenny: One last question, Lionel.

Lionel: I think it’s a former MBA student. “Other than diversity committees, what do you know about initiative that try to change the dominant male culture? Hiring and promoting females is one thing, but you could argue that they become more male to fit in the system that has traditionally been designed by men. Female won’t sit together with a after-dinner cigar to make business, to name a cliché. So what are the other initiatives?”

I’m not going to be original, but what works the most, is to bring the two genders together. So when you interview people, for example, it’s much better to have female interviewers, as well as male interviewers. In the Diversity Committee, again, it’s not the Diversity Committee process, it’s the mixity and the presence of male and females to send a strong signal that everyone is aware of this issue, and those objectives to meet. And it’s a matter for everyone. So that’s what matters the most.

Even in the academic literature, or in sociology about the feminist studies, they only look at the female worth to improve the situations, or to highlight some effects of domination and exploitation, and never bring the two genders together. So that’s any kind of initiative that you could think of, mixing the two genders are really good to implement. Much more than the initiative process to always think about the mixity in any type of initiatives.

Even mentoring, for example. So most of the time, you need a female diversity champion to mentor mid-career female employees. Well, you need two mentors, male and female. Always bring the two genders together to try to improve the situation. And I think I need to stop here, Jenny.

Jenny: Thank you very much, Lionel. Thanks, to all of you for the interesting questions, and to Lionel for your insightful answers. I’m so impressed by the number of interesting questions that poured in, and I truly wish that we had another hour, or two, to discuss all of them. Even though we can’t actually do that, at least not today, I hope we all agree that Sucheta would have been proud of this inaugural seminar in her honour.

Now I’d like to invite my partner in crime, Tracey Horn, Executive Director of the WLC, to share some exciting news, and to bring the seminar to a close. This seminar would not have happened without the tremendous amount of work that Tracey put into organising it. Thank you, Tracey. Tracey, take it away.

Tracey: OK. Thank you. And thank you, Lionel, so very much for delivering our inaugural lecture today in Sucheta’s memory. I know that Sucheta would have been thrilled to be hearing it, and she would have had many comments to make, and possibly some corrections, who knows. And we’re really delighted that Sucheta’s family and friends have been able to join us.

And really, I wanted to close. We’re here today to remember Sucheta. Because of a woman, a friend, a colleague, a teacher, a researcher, who inspired and mentored many. And it’s really hard for us to imagine that Sucheta is no longer here. Still, a year has gone, and she is sorely missed. And it’s really important that we remember Sucheta and carry on her legacy.

So I’m particularly pleased today, to announce that the recipients of the Cambridge Judge-sponsored Strategic Management Society Sucheta Nadkarni Award for Outstanding Publication on Women Executive Leadership, are Dr Raina Brands and Dr Isabel Fernandez-Mateo from LBS.

Sucheta was absolutely a force of nature, and at the Women’s Leadership Centre, we will ensure that her memory and work live on, in our continued action for women’s leadership and gender diversity in business. And Jenny and I would like to thank you all for coming today, and to our friends and colleagues, for your strong support, and continued support, of the Women’s Leadership Centre.

So thank you once again, Lionel, and thank you everyone for joining us today. Goodbye.

Lionel Paolella.
Dr Lionel Paolella

Firms that increase female representation at top levels often use such a “good deed” as an organisational crutch to become complacent in addressing gender inequality at lower levels, says a study presented at the inaugural Professor Sucheta Nadkarni Research Seminar.

The study, which focuses on the top 200 US law firms over a nine-year period, finds that such “organisational licencing” reduces employment offers to women at lower levels and creates only an “illusion of fairness” that merely addresses pressure from external shareholders.

The study also finds that the presence of male leaders in organisation-wide diversity committees lessens such detrimental effects. “We demonstrate that the presence of male leaders on diversity committees reduces the organisational licensing effects of gender parity at the top on the recruitment of female employees at the lower levels,” says the study.

The research breaks new ground by moving beyond what the authors term a “female-centered lens” in prior studies toward a “more holistic organisation-level” approach.

“Our study lends an organisational explanation of a phenomenon not explained in existing research – how gender diversity in senior management positions results in unintended paradoxical consequences for female hiring at lower levels,” says the study co-authored at Cambridge Judge.

A stark chart in the study shows that in 2007 the average number of female partners at the top 200 US law firms was about 30 and the average number of hiring offers to female associates was about 15, while in 2015 the average number of female partners was about 40 and the average number of new hiring offers to female associates was about 10.

A 2017 report by McKinsey found that while US law firms have made concerted efforts to implement programmes to increase diversity, these efforts have not resulted in measurable “long-term benefits to recruitment” for women associates – so the report suggested that law firms need to “find ways to make diversity a firm-wide issue”.

The study is based on a longitudinal data set of the top 200 US law firms from 2007 to 2015, supplemented by interviews with 33 female and male lawyers ranging from senior partners to junior associates at sampled firms.

The research found that appointing women to top roles had a “significant” and “negative” effect on lower-level recruitment of women, Lionel told the webinar, in which he also emphasised the “virtuous role” that men can play on diversity committees and the importance that such committees meet on a very regular basis.

“It’s very important to bring this male majority on board,” Lionel said in response to webinar audience questions coordinated by Dr Jenny Chu, University Senior Lecturer in Accounting and Academic Director of the Wo+Men’s Leadership Centre at Cambridge Judge. He continued, “We hope our research has shifted the focus away from women at the top of organisations to the organisation itself.”

Lionel said that the lessons learned from the study on the negative effects of “organisational licensing” can be applied to many other aspects of diversity – be they “good deeds” in philanthropy or in protecting the environment, because organisations can become lax and allow unconscious bias to emerge in many areas.

At the webinar watched around the world including by Sucheta’s family and friends in India, the recipients of the Cambridge Judge-sponsored Strategic Management Society Sucheta Nadkarni Award for Outstanding Publication on Women Executive Leadership were announced: Raina A. Brands and Isabel Fernandez-Mateo of London Business School were honoured for their publication: “Leaning Out: How Negative Recruitment Experience Shape Women’s Decisions to Compete for Executive Roles”. The paper – entitled “A License to Tick-Off the Box: Female Representation in Top Management and Organizational Diversity Priority” – is co-authored by Sucheta Nadkarni and Lionel Paolella of Cambridge Judge Business School, and Priyanka Dwivedi of Mays Business School at Texas A&M University.

This article was published on

5 November 2020.