Women on Board: Female Board Membership as a Form of Elite Democratization


Corporate elites have been all-male bastions until the twenty-first century. The recent inclusion of women in the corporate elite needs explanation because it is an abrupt change in recruitment practices. We consider female presence in corporate boards as a sign of the democratization of elite social networks. Building on a case study of the Netherlands that covers the last four decades, we show that the corporate elite has become more open to nonmembers of traditional elites. In the process, women have also entered the boardroom. Initially, these were predominantly female politicians, but more recently many large corporations have recruited foreign females. We argue that the incremental feminization of the corporate elite was in the beginning—that is in the 1970s—initiated by the state but was subsequently pushed forward by the internationalization of corporate governance. We have traced the professional background of all female board members of the largest firms in the Netherlands over the period 1969–2011. We show that the female board members do not form a homogeneous group. The first wave of female directors had a political background, the second wave had an academic background, whereas the third wave was recruited from within the corporations. In this third wave, foreign female directors became predominant. Elites open up their ranks and privileged positions to women, but they do so reluctantly and under outside pressure.