Unveiling the relationship between women on board and woman CEO selection: what is the role of sustainability governance?


  • Maria Cristina Zaccone




women on board; woman CEO; women at the top; sustainability committee; sustainability-linked incentive system


Frame of the research: Studies highlight challenges affecting woman CEO selection. However, the literature falls short in emphasizing proactive measures and supportive conditions crucial for women’s success in organizational leadership.
Purpose of the paper: Several companies nowadays are committed to improving the presence of women at the corporate apex. However, little is known about the factors able to facilitate women’s access to the CEO role. This paper relies on critical mass theory to investigate whether the presence of a critical mass of women on board facilitates the appointment of a woman CEO. Moreover, the paper investigates whether the presence of a sustainability committee on board strengthens the relationship between women on board and a woman CEO appointment. Lastly, the paper examines whether the presence of a sustainability-linked incentive system strengthens such a relationship.
Methodology: Analyses are performed on a sample of companies listed in the most important market of developed countries (S&P100, FTSE100, IBEX35, DAX30, CAC40, SMI). The time frame is about ten years (2010-2019). To test the hypothesis, we first ran a regression analysis. Later, we ran robustness tests adopting different matching techniques.
Findings: Results show a positive linkage between the presence of a critical mass of women on board and the presence of a woman CEO. In addition, results show that such a link is stronger when the company sets up a sustainability committee on board. Lastly, the results indicate that such a link is stronger when the company has a sustainability-linked incentive system for board members.
Research limits: Our study’s sample is confined to particular businesses in developed nations, with a particular emphasis on the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, France, and Switzerland. The concentration on these geographical regions prompts contemplation about the broader relevance of our results. Additionally, our sample consists solely of publicly traded companies, a deliberate choice aimed at guaranteeing the comprehensiveness of the data essential for our analyses.
Practical implications: The results must be taken with care as people belonging to different interests’ groups or categories could interpret them differently. For women, our empirical results may seem like one more reason to break the glass ceiling and promote workplace inclusion at the top of companies. For men, this empirical evidence could instead be interpreted as a mechanism that rewards people based on whether or not they belong to a certain demographic group and not so much based on the skills and abilities they possess. In essence, men may perceive that as the critical mass of women on boards increases, so does the likelihood that men will be excluded from top positions.
Originality of the paper: This study investigates a phenomenon currently under-investigated in literature, namely the antecedents of having a woman CEO. In addition, the study investigates the possible role played by a company’s effort toward sustainability in strengthening the relationship between women’s presence on the board and a woman CEO selection.


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