Business woman puts her feet up on her desk on the phone

Chris Bart was perplexed. He’d studied the growing pile of research highlighting how female board directors boost corporate performance. Some of the effects were measurable—boards with more women are linked to a 53% higher return on equity, according to one study, and their companies go bankrupt less frequently. (The presence of even one female director can reduce the risk of going belly up by 20%.) Others were more qualitative: women ask more questions, rather than nodding through decisions. But if the business case was so compelling, why had female representation on boards stalled at around 10% in Canada? More important, why did having women on a board make a difference at all?

The McMaster University business professor decided to pursue a hunch, using a readily available resource. For years, he’d been administering a test to help board members assess their decision-making skills, as part of a training program he’d developed for corporate directors. He and his research partner, Greg McQueen, now had a sample substantial enough to parse in a new way: along gender lines.

The results showed female board members make decisions differently than their male counterparts. Women relied more often on what the researchers call “complex moral reasoning.” By weighing a broader range of factors and implications, women fared better at making “consistently fair decisions when competing interests are at stake.” Men tended to base their decisions on rules and traditions. Women’s instincts made them better problem-solvers, but the researchers posited that those tendencies could make them look like troublemakers on male-dominated boards.

“Could this be one of the prime motivators for why male-dominated boards resist having women on boards?” the researchers speculated. “They do not want to have to deal with the challenge of being challenged.”

But if corporations dislike how women make decisions, they need to get over it.

Increasingly, innate—and beneficial—gender differences are being used to build a business case for female advancement. Women are different, and businesses ignore this at their peril, whether it’s by shutting out the unique talent that women bring to boardrooms and C-suites, or by failing to recognize what female employees want from their managers and losing them to savvy competitors. It’s not about building on-site daycares—it’s about tapping the best candidate pools and ensuring retention of star employees.

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Barbara Annis, an expert on workplace gender issues, describes the current thinking about the differences between men and women this way: “We have moved from

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