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Gender on board: deconstructing the “legitimate” female director

Marie-Soleil Tremblay (École Nationale d'administration publique, Quebec, canada)
Yves Gendron (Faculté des sciences de l'administration, Université Laval, Quebec, Canada)
Bertrand Malsch (Queens school of business, Queens University, Kingston, Canada)

Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal

ISSN: 0951-3574

Article publication date: 18 January 2016

Abstract

Purpose

Drawing on Bourdieu’s (2001) concept of symbolic violence in his work on Masculine Domination, the purpose of this paper is to examine how perceptions of legitimacy surrounding the presence of female directors are constructed in the boardroom, and the role of symbolic violence in the process.

Design/methodology/approach

The authors carried out the investigation through a series of 32 interviews, mostly with board members in government-owned, commercially focussed companies in Québec. The study was conducted in the aftermath of the adoption of a legislative measure aiming to institute parity in the boardroom of government-owned companies.

Findings

The analysis suggests that perceptions of legitimacy are predicated on two main discourses, as conveyed through board members when interpreting the presence of female directors. In the first discursive representation, feminine gender is naturalized and mobilized by participants to support (quite oftentimes in a rather apparent positive way) the distinctive contributions that femininity can make, or cannot make, to the functioning of boards. In the second discourse (degenderizing), the question of gender disappears from the sense-making process. Women’s presence is then justified and normalized, not because of their feminine qualities, but rather and uniquely for their competencies.

Research limitations/implications

While, from a first level of analysis, the main discourses the authors unveiled may be considered as potentially enhancing women’s role and legitimacy within boards, from a deeper perspective such discourses may also be viewed as channels for symbolic violence to operate discreetly, promoting certain forms of misrecognition that continue to marginalize certain individuals or groups of people. For example, the degenderizing discourse misrecognizes that a focus on individual competency contests overlooks the social conditions under which the contesters developed their competencies.

Practical implications

Provides awareness and a basis for directors to understand and how symbolic power covertly operates in apparently rationalized structures of corporate governance and challenge assumptions.

Social implications

Implications in terms of policy making to promote board diversity are discussed. This is particularly relevant since many countries around the world are considering affirmative-action-type regulation to accelerate an otherwise dawdling trend in the nomination of women on boards.

Originality/value

The research is the first to empirically address the notion of gendering in the boardroom, focussing on the construction of meanings surrounding the “legitimate” female director. The study is also one of few giving access to a field where a critical mass is attained, allowing the authors to investigate perceptions regarding the extent to which the order of things is altered in the boardroom once formal parity is established. Finally, the study sensitizes the authors further to the pertinence of investigating how symbolic power covertly operates in today’s society, including within apparently rationalized structures of corporate governance.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

The authors thank the individuals who have collaborated to the realization of the research study through interviews. The authors also benefited from the comments made by Henri Guénin-Paracini, Sylvain Durocher, Marion Brivot and Caroline Lambert as well as participants in the 7th International Conference on Accounting, Auditing & Management in public sector reforms. Finally, the authors gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Citation

Tremblay, M.-S., Gendron, Y. and Malsch, B. (2016), "Gender on board: deconstructing the “legitimate” female director", Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 29 No. 1, pp. 165-190. https://doi.org/10.1108/AAAJ-05-2014-1711

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2016, Emerald Group Publishing Limited