University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business Law

First Page


Publication Date


Document Type



In 1973, Eleanor Sheldon became the first woman on the board of the organization that became Citicorp. A few years later she was also on the boards of Mobil Corporation and H.J. Heinz Company. She saw herself “as a beginning, not a token.” Despite this promising beginning, almost fifty years later, women are still often treated as tokens on a majority of boards. There have been several initiatives implemented in the last few years to help move beyond tokenism, however. Having women on boards means not only that more women are moving into positions of influence, but also, improved performance is likely for the organization.

There are many studies indicating the advantages to businesses that include women on boards both economically and reputationally. In addition, representation of women on boards challenges existing stereotypes and inspires young girls to think bigger. In doing so, the perception of industries being gendered is undermined and women are entering fields which had previously been considered off limits. For example, the most notable of these off limits areas of employment are the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Yet, although women have been increasing in their participation in these industries, their participation still represents only 27% of workers, despite making up nearly half the national workforce. Just as it is widely acknowledged that giving young girls role models in STEM fields is important in increasing female participation in the area, so too would the increased participation of women on corporate boards encourage young women in business to work towards these positions.

The benefits of having women in positions of power also extends to political and social spheres. Many countries have recently sought to increase female representation either by putting forward more female candidates, or introducing gender balanced cabinets. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the appointment of a gender balanced ethnically diverse cabinet in 2015, and has continued to propel women to significant positions within the government in later terms. When asked to explain his plan for a gender balanced cabinet, he answered only “Because it’s 2015.”

Despite Trudeau’s belief that single gender dominated cabinets are outdated in the modern world, there is ample evidence suggesting that increased representation of women leads to more female representation in legislation which directly affects women, and results in more beneficial legislation involving children, families, and education. This importance is reflected in the number of countries that have introduced gender quotas to ensure the involvement of women in national governments. Although this reflects progress in the acknowledgment of the need for diversity in governments, the world is still far away from achieving gender balance in government. As of 2021, only five countries have parliaments with at least 50% women representatives, and in twenty-seven countries female representation is under ten percent. At the executive level, in 2021, women are even less well represented with only thirteen countries having a woman head of state, and fifteen countries having a woman as head of government.

This paper analyzes various initiatives seeking to provide opportunities for women to join the ranks of those in positions of power and the likely benefits beyond those to the individuals involved. It also offers a way forward for firms interested in attaining gender equity in leadership. Part I begins with a discussion of various legislative initiatives to increase the representation of women on boards followed by efforts of a stock exchange, institutional investors, proxy advisory firms, private companies, as well as individuals. Part II addresses the benefits for women in the workforce from an increase of women in positions of power in government and considers the uneven effects of the pandemic on women in the workforce. Part III then analyzes mentoring as a means toward fostering equality in the workplace. In Part IV we provide a number of business success stories, followed with potential roadmap for organizations to provide pathways for women to rise to positions of leadership in Part V. Concluding remarks follow.