An Ideas-Based Online Magazine of the Global Network for Advanced Management

Can Legal Theory Help Women in the Boardroom?

Carol Liao

2017 was a watershed year for women; whether it was the impactful Women’s March or the #MeToo social media campaign, women across the globe sparked critical discussion about their personal rights and society’s continued tendency toward misogynistic behavior.

As analysts and scholars examine the implications of these movements, Dr. Carol Liao – an assistant professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law and UBC Sauder Distinguished Scholar at the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics – encourages taking a step back and reviewing the characteristics that underpin today’s global concentration of power.

“One cannot deny that business, power, and capital are all intertwined in our capitalism system,” says Dr. Liao. “According to the World Bank, women represent 40% of the world’s labor force but hold just 1% of the world’s wealth. If power and capital are intertwined, what does holding 1% of the world’s capital signify in terms of power?”

Liao – who has authored a number of articles related to feminist legal theory – argues that this disproportionate level of power and the pervasive gendered norms present within the structure of corporate law not only play out in corporate cultures, but also impede the progression of women to higher levels of power in business.

In Canada, the picture is grim and the lack of inclusivity is layered. Liao demonstrates this by citing the top 700 Toronto Stock Exchange-listed Canadian companies; almost half of them have all-male boards, with women holding just 12% of the total board seats. Virtually all of these women are white.

Dr. Liao believes that feminist legal theory, which at its heart harbors the notions of equality and an ethic of care, can work towards rectifying this lop-sided system and instituting a corporate culture that works for all. It critiques the disproportionately negative effect corporate power has had on women, particularly those in third-world countries. However, owing to the range of topics that feminist legal theory addresses, Liao believes feminism in corporate law does not benefit women alone.

“Feminism is diverse…in the context of corporate law, it challenges shareholder primacy and the myopic focus on short-term profit to the detriment of long-term value,” she explains. “Feminist legal theory offers a reminder that boards must consider not just shareholders in their corporate decision-making, but also employees, creditors, consumers, government, local communities and the environment.”

So, what can companies learn from the events of 2017? And importantly, how can legal theory translate into action and create an indiscriminate corporate ecosystem? At the outset, Dr. Liao proposes that companies make a conscious effort to hire and advance women in management and elect more women on boards.

“We need policies that unequivocally support gender equality, diversity and exhibit zero-tolerance for sexual harassment and retaliation against whistle-blowers. Management should publicly support these polices and continually recognize and challenge the patriarchal norms and implicit biases,” explains Dr. Liao.

While there has been a certain awakening to these issues over the past year, Dr. Liao recognizes that there’s still a level of caution attached. “Progress has been slow and at the prevailing rate, gender parity is not going to be reached in my children’s lifetime.”

Progress is slow; however, Dr. Liao’s work shows critical topics are finding their way into discussions and debates amongst the next generation of business thought-leaders.