Much has been written about boards and diversity, especially diversity that is readily perceptible: gender or race, for example. We ourselves have explored gender diversity, in our global surveys of corporate directors, in partnership with WomenCorporateDirectors and Heidrick & Struggles, and in scores of interviews with board members across the globe.
We were, however, keen to learn more about another type of diversity–one that has received little attention: the personal pursuits, hobbies and interests of board members. What do directors like to do outside of the boardroom? What captures their attention and imaginations? How do they choose to spend their avocational time?
Personal pursuits and interests such as cultural activities, community service, sports, fitness, and recreational travel tell us a lot about an individual–not least because time is often our scarcest resource and how we choose to spend it conveys much about who we are–and help us to draw a more complete picture of a person. Thus, like gender or race, personal interests are an important measure of identity and, therefore, another element of diversity that can be examined in its expression across board members and its role in board composition and the group dynamics of boards.
Who’s Doing What
So what personal pursuits and interests are directors engaging in outside of the boardroom?
We analyzed responses from directors across four regions (see our methodology section below) and found remarkable similarities in their top personal interests. “Sports and fitness” and “arts, culture and design” were among the top three of each region. One notable difference amongst the regions: “philanthropy and community service” made only one Top Three list—in Asia.
When we broke out the results by gender within each region we found some marked differences between women and men directors—but were struck that most of the differences between genders were consistent across regions. For instance, across all four regions a greater percentage of women than men named “arts, culture and design”; “reading and writing”; “food, wine and cooking”; and “nature” as interests whereas a greater percentage of men than women named “sports and fitness” as an interest.
Another observation that especially intrigued us: the percentage of directors in each region who named “family and friends” as an outside interest. This finding made us wonder if the work-life balance had become so complicated for many that spending time with family and friends had come to be regarded as an interest. And we also found some notable gender differences: In Asia, for example, 11% of men named “family and friends” as an interest whereas no women did.
Cohesion and Gender
When looking at similarities and differences in interests, there is another critical factor to consider: their effects on group dynamics. Throughout our research on boards, directors have repeatedly emphasized that being in sync with their fellow board members is a key to establishing good board dynamics and strive to become cohesive. And we know that a key factor that facilitates group cohesiveness is similarity between members.
But similarity can cut both ways. Many, including us, have looked at long-standing disparities in board composition by gender or race and their continued perpetuation by board members pursuing new members who are like themselves (e.g., from the same social, alumni, professional, regional networks). Also, another important factor to consider: the tendency of members of cohesive groups to converge—that is, to become more alike—over time.
While, overall, we saw alignment in interests across the globe, gender differences persisted in a way that was especially striking. The differences between women and men directors was consistent regardless of region. We find this to be remarkable in light of the fact that each region encompasses different cultures, languages and customs.
Thus, our data does seem to suggest that convergence may be occurring amongst board members, but with an unexpected twist. Is it possible that the convergence is happening along gender lines, that is, women directors are becoming more like their fellow women directors and men directors more like their male cohorts? Future research needs to shed more light on this question.
These findings raise pressing questions for further exploration. Specifically, how and why do these differences between women and men persist, affect group cohesion and, thereby, board dynamics? And more broadly, how do diverse personal interests play out in a board’s group dynamics, selection choices and ultimate composition. We think such a better understanding will help us to differentiate and delineate when alike is a constructive force for boards and when it is a limiting and excluding one.
We surveyed more than 1,000 board members in 59 countries. (U.S. boards made up 37% of the sample while 62% of boards represented were from outside of the U.S.) We analyzed the data along several dimensions including geography. Specifically, we did a geographical breakout by eight major world regions: Asia; Africa; Australia and New Zealand; Eastern Europe & Russia; Latin America; the Middle East; North America; and Western Europe (due to low sample size or domination by one or few countries in a region we have excluded four regions, Africa, Eastern Europe & Russia, Latin America, and the Middle East, from these findings).
These findings are the result of qualitative analysis of participants’ text-based, write-in answers to the question: “What are your outside interests?”