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Why so Few Women on Boards of Directors? Empirical Evidence from Danish Companies in 1998–2010


This paper analyzes the determinants of women’s representation on boards of directors based on a panel of all privately owned or listed Danish firms with at least 50 employees observed during the period 1998–2010. We focus on the directors who are not elected by the employees and test three hypotheses on female board representation that we denote the female-led hypothesis, the tokenism hypothesis, and the pipeline hypothesis, respectively. We find evidence rejecting the female-led hypothesis. Firms with a female chairperson on the board of directors tend to have significantly fewer other non-employee-elected female board members. We also find clear evidence of a tokenism behavior in Danish companies. The likelihood of enlarging the share of non-employee-elected female board members is significantly smaller if one, two, or more women have sat on the board of directors. Finally, the pipeline hypothesis is partly confirmed. The relation between the female pipeline of potentially qualified directors and female directors is weaker than the similar relation for males. Our findings offer insights to policy makers interested in promoting gender diversity within boardrooms. Our empirical evidence suggests that an important way to increase the female proportion of non-employee-elected board members is that more women reach top executive positions.

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  1. In this study, we do not discuss gender quota regulations or family-friendly policies that also influence more or less indirectly the gender composition on corporate boards, see Terjesen et al. (2014) and the survey in Smith (2014).

  2. In Denmark, firms with more than 35 employees are obliged to have EEBM. The EEBMs are elected among the employees and may stem from all parts of the organization, including the lowest hierarchic levels, i.e., EEBM may be manual workers. Thus, EEBMs are very different from ‘insider board members’ in a US company who are either present or former executive officers in the company, see for instance Farrell and Hersch (2005).

  3. In this study, we do not have access to newer data where register information on firm and employee level from Statistics Denmark is merged with the information on gender composition and size of corporate boards from the private database Experian.

  4. The exact definition using Statistics Denmark's ‘DISCO-codes’ is CEO = Executive director (RAS-DISCO code 121, 1210). VP = Vice-President (DISCO 122, 123, 1221–1239). Pool of potentials = potential top executive. (First digit of DISCO code is 1 but not included in the groups of top or vice directors). In order to remove outliers or errors in the DISCO-codes, we restrict the CEO group to individuals who are observed with annual earnings in top 10 of the firm. The VP group is restricted to individuals who are observed among the top 25. The definition of the occupational groups and the sample selection in this study is different from the sample in Smith et al. (2013), mainly because we do not include companies with less than 50 employees in the present study when defining the group of potential top executives.

  5. The data set used in Smith et al. (2013) includes more and smaller companies than the data set used in this study, and therefore the proportion of females among the CEOs is larger.

  6. In this table, all industry dummies are grouped in service and non-service sectors for the sake of simplicity.

  7. The ‘pipeline’ coefficient is largest for small- and medium-sized companies (50–99 and 100–499 employees which amounts to 89 % of all companies in the sample), see Appendix Table 14, while the coefficient is small and insignificant for firms with more than 499 employees. Part of the explanation for the low coefficient for large firms may be that the relatively few large Danish (most often publicly listed companies) companies often hire their board members from other countries, i.e., the national pipeline of qualified women may be less important for large Danish firms, see Erhvervsstyrelsen (2015).



Boards of directors


Chief executive officer


Chief financial officer


Chief operating officer


Executive directors


Employee-elected board members


Fixed-effects panel regression


Financial times and the London stock exchange (UK stock index)


Non-executive director


Nomination committees


Pool of potential executives


Random-effects panel regression


Vice-President of the board of directors


Women on corporate boards


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We thank Rafael Lalive for his valuable comments and suggestions. Pierpaolo Parrotta and Nina Smith gratefully acknowledge the financial support from the Carlsberg Foundation. Pierpaolo Parrotta also acknowledges the financial support from the Swiss National Centres of Competence in Research LIVES.

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Correspondence to Pierpaolo Parrotta.

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See Tables 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14.

Table 8 Mean values—pooled sample
Table 9 Bivariate correlations
Table 10 Test hypotheses jointly
Table 11 Endogeneity checks—female-led hypothesis
Table 12 Robustness checks—female-led hypothesis
Table 13 Robustness checks—tokenism hypothesis
Table 14 Robustness checks—pipeline hypothesis

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Smith, N., Parrotta, P. Why so Few Women on Boards of Directors? Empirical Evidence from Danish Companies in 1998–2010. J Bus Ethics 147, 445–467 (2018).

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  • Corporate governance
  • Gender gap
  • Female-led companies
  • Tokenism hypothesis
  • Pipeline hypothesis