Trewstar Corporate Board Services

Gender Parity on Corporate Boards: A Lesson From the Ivy League

April 24, 2018

# 2 In Trewstar’s Series: Let’s Change the Conversation

After the conversation had percolated for decades – bolstered by studies and commissions, but little progress – it was only in the late 1970s that the march towards coeducation in the Ivy League became unstoppable. This same force moved the goal from tokenism to gender parity. Today, the corporate sector is facing a similar pressure to open the boardroom to women, and the conversation is now peppered with talk of parity. Parity, however, will never be achieved in the boardroom, unless the corporate world takes a page from the University Handbook. Once committed to the goal, the success of the Ivy League in moving women into the classroom depended entirely on a single factor – term limits.

The preconditions for coeducation were notably familiar. The close of the 70s brought significant skepticism towards government on the heels of Vietnam and Watergate. Individualism and personal liberty pushed social mores in directions unthinkable to earlier generations – and led to a seemingly unbreachable political divide. At the time, second wave feminists were pushing for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and marching for equal rights and against violence against women. In that restive environment, one by one the Ivies made room for the women who had been knocking at their gates.

In the end, however, it was not so much a shared righteousness that opened the gates for women, as a fear on the part of universities that the best-qualified men would follow the women to integrated classrooms. As the Yale Daily News noted in an article on January 23, 1978, an early report on Yale coeducation found that “many . . . valued the presence of women, because they believed that women made Yale a pleasanter place for men.” In other words, women were the bait to keep men inside the ivied walls.

In today’s market for women board candidates, external factors are similarly exerting pressure on institutions to move the needle on gender diversity. But, in this case, if women join boards, the men in charge can stay.

With the current environment primed to allow more women a seat at the boardroom table, the obvious question is: Are there enough empty seats to accommodate the outstanding candidates?

The answer is an emphatic “no.”

This is where the 40-year lens of coeducation offers its most illustrative lesson. The Ivy League was able to reach gender parity reasonably quickly, because each undergraduate “seat” has a term-limit. After four years, each student rolls off to make room for another. This enabled what was initially an experiment in coeducation to not just take root, but flourish.

In today’s boardrooms by contrast, term limits are the exception rather than the rule. While there are arguments supporting the notion of some flexibility if term limits are imposed, we live in a world of overly-sticky seats. Ultimately female candidates need the chance to move in, which cannot happen, regardless of outside pressure, if there are no vacancies.


Beth Stewart
Founder and CEO
Trewstar Corporate Board Services