Women on S&P500 boards of directors
This is a co-post with FogOfWar.
Here’s an interesting article about how many board of directors for S&P500 companies consist entirely of men. Turns out it’s 47. Well, but we’d expect there to be some number of boards (out of 500) which consist entirely of men even if half of the overall set of board members are women. So the natural question arises, what is the most likely actual proportion of women given this number 47 out of 500?
In fact we know that many people are on multiple boards but for the sake of this discussion let’s assume that there’s a line of board seekers standing outside waiting to get in, and that we will randomly distribute them to boards as they walk inside, and we are wondering how many of them are women given that we end up with 47 all-men boards out of 500. Also, let’s assume there are 8 slots per board, which is of course a guess but we can see how robust that guess is by changing it at the end.
By the way, I can think of two arguments as to why the simplification that nobody is on multiple boards argument might skew the results. On the one hand, we all know it’s an old boys network so there are a bunch of connections that a few select men enjoy which puts them on a bunch of boards, which probably means the average number of boards that a man is on, who is on at least one board, is pretty large. On the other hand, it’s also well-known that, in order to seem like you’re diverse and modern, companies are trying to get at least a token woman on their board, and for some reason consider the task of finding a qualified woman really difficult. Thus I imagine it’s quite likely that once a woman has been invited to be on a board, and she’s magically dubbed “qualified,” then approximately 200 other boards will immediately invite that same woman to be on their board (“Oh my god, they’ve actually found a qualified woman!”). In other words I imagine that the average number of boards a given woman is on, assuming she’s on one, is probably even higher than for men, so our simplifying assumptions will in the end be overestimating the number of women on boards. But this is just a guess.
Now that I’ve written that argument down, I realize another reason our calculation below will be overestimating women is this concept of tokenism- once a board has one woman they may think their job is done, so to speak, in the diversity department. I’m wishing I could really get my hands on the sizes and composition of each board and see how many of them have exactly one woman (and compare that to what you’d expect with random placement). This could potentially prove (in the sense of providing statistically significant evidence for) a culture of tokenism. If anyone reading this knows how to get their hands on that data, please write!
Now to the calculation. Assuming, once more, that each board member is on exactly one board and that there are 8 people (randomly distributed) per board, what is the most likely percentage of overall women given that we are seeing 47 all-male boards out of 500? This boils down to a biased coin problem (with the two sides labeld “F” and “M” for female and male) where we are looking for the bias. For each board we flip the coin 8 times and see how many “F”s we get and how many “M”s we get and that gives us our board.
First, what would the expected number of all-male boards be if the coin is unbiased? Since expectation is additive and we are modeling the boards as independent, we just need to figure out the probability that one board is all-male and multiply by 500. But for an unbiased coin that boils down to (1/2)^8 = 0.39%, so after multiplying by 500 we get 1.95, in other words we’d expect 2 all-male boards. So the numbers are definitely telling us that we should not be expecting 50% women. What is the most likely number of women then? In this case we work backwards: we know the answer is 47, so divide that by 500 to get 0.094, and now find the probability p of the biased coin landing on F so that all-maleness has probability 0.094. This is another way of saying that (1-p)^8 = 0.094, or that 1-p is 0.744, the eighth root of 0.094. So our best guess is p = 25.6%. Here’s a table with other numbers depending on the assumed size of the boards:
If anyone reading this has a good sense of the distribution of the size of boards for the S&P500, please write or comment, so I can improve our estimates.