New Research | “No More Excuses: How to finally shatter the glass ceiling and get more women onto boards”


As we approach the 33rd anniversary of the US Department of Labor’s landmark report, The Glass Ceiling Initiative, the quote from Evan Kemp in the introduction to the original report is as relevant today to some women in business as it was a third of a century ago, according to new research from IMD in cooperation with the Boardroom.

The research was undertaken in two parts:

One, qualitative interviews with 15 executives identifying as female who held or aspired to hold board positions. Two, an online survey completed by 130 senior women in business.

The findings were that the process of recruitment to company boards is opaque, with more than six in 10 of those surveyed saying that how individuals are elevated to the company’s highest positions is not transparent. And while more than half believe these appointments are based on merit, a third say they are not.

Supply or demand?

One key question explored was whether the lack of women board members was due to ‘supply or demand’. Supply is characterized as whether there are enough suitable women in the talent pipeline, and demand as whether companies actively seek women candidates. A stark result from this is that two-thirds see it predominantly as a demand issue while only one in 126 of the women who answered the question see the problem on the supply side. More than three- quarters (78%) believe companies hide behind the claim that they cannot find qualified women. In short, the pipeline of experienced, qualified women is there, but companies need to be more diligent, inclusive, and systematic in involving women in the board recruitment process. Indeed, 80% agree that there are no more excuses for the low representation of women in these roles.

Networking and headhunters – how to secure a board position

Women in top positions disagree on whether networking or executive search firms are the best route to the boardroom and the survey sheds some light on where the answer might lie.

The vast majority (90%) of those surveyed believe that better networking opportunities are key to success. Some women also cited the importance of cultivating two types of networks. One network should comprise fellow women in business, for support and sharing experiences, while membership of mixed gender networks is particularly useful to build visibility with those executives who influence the selection of board members. A note of caution was highlighted by the survey, which indicated that half of those surveyed say that women lack time outside normal working hours to undertake networking.

Women who are seeking board positions placed a heavier emphasis on the importance of executive search firms in getting them onto boards than did women with existing board mandates (more than six in 10 versus less than four in 10 respectively). The reality is, given board positions are recruited via several routes, women are well-advised to nurture their networks as well as build their profile with headhunters to increase the odds of being identified as potential board members. Also, barriers need to be removed.

Barriers to the boardroom

The barriers to female participation and representation on boards are many and varied, ranging from the perceived attitude and behavior of men towards women, a lack of appreciation of the positive effects on the business of a more diverse leadership team, and societal issues mitigating against the advancement of women in the upper echelons of business.


“I’m not a quota person, but they help facilitate change.” – Interview participant

The survey indicates that women want to make their mark on merit, but that rapid and lasting change can be helped by the application of quotas. So, while fewer than one in 10 of those surveyed said they had always been strong advocates of quotas, eight in 10 agreed with the statement that ‘I’m not a quota person, but things won’t change otherwise’.

The need to more rapidly elevate women to board positions is supported by the fact that the worldwide average of women on boards in 2021 was 19.7% – an increase of just 2.8 percentage points since 2019 (Deloitte’s 2022 ‘Women in the Boardroom’ report).


To read the full research, please visit: