Women on the Outside: New Global Research on Influence

An important new study conducted for the Brookings Institute by Tuugi Chuluun and Kevin L. Young provides a novel view of women’s representation in organizations around the globe. The authors, by using a new network analysis technique, note that the lack of representation of women in leadership positions in the United States is well documented: thirty-seven Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs, and only three of these CEOs are women of color.

They note that globally, many initiatives exist that promote more women to leadership and increase diversity in boardrooms and in government. “However,” Chuluun and Young state, “women, and especially women of color, remain dramatically underrepresented, and the coronavirus pandemic threatens progress we have made on this front because of gender inequality in the division of housework.”

This new study seeks to gain a more complete picture of women’s representation beyond counting the numbers of women in leadership and on boards. These authors posit that greater numbers of minority individuals, including women, in leadership may not mean greater influence in organizations and society because minority leaders may be marginalized from elite networks where influence on organizations and society is leveraged. They suggest that power and influence comes from these elite networks, where trust, cooperation, and information is shared. Their analysis identifies the group of organizational leaders within the network who are more connected to one another at the center of the analysis and compares them to the peripheral nodes that are loosely interconnected.

Why do networks matter? The authors explain that “a woman who is on the board of a powerful organization with global reach . . . is not likely to be as powerful as the woman who is on the board of several organizations, all of which are densely connected to yet more powerful people.” These densely connected people are the global elite. The authors examined the dynamics of board ties across organizations to study interrelationships among elites and how an individual’s connections and position in the elite network relate to their gender and race. Their study analyzed 1,600 individuals who serve as board members in nearly one hundred globally prominent organizations, including the largest corporations, think tanks, and NGOs like the World Health Organization and the International Monetary Fund.


The authors’ report shows that women of all racial groups are marginalized at the periphery of these power networks and are not part of the “inner circles” where greater power and influence reside. They note, “Women—and non-white women in particular—are proportionately more confined to peripheral positions within the network.” In fact,

  • Representation of white males increases when moving from the periphery to the core
  • For women, their representation declines when moving toward the core

The authors conclude that as this is true for women of all racial groups, it appears that gender is the most significant determinant of who is in the “core” of the elite networks. Even though being white offers significant advantages in professional settings, representation for white women declines precipitously at the core of elite networks.

Why does women’s inclusion or exclusion from elite networks matter? The authors suggest that

  • Decisions are impacted by backgrounds and cognitive biases
  • Gender is a pervasive social institution that informs the way people process information and make decisions
  • The lack of women’s influence in the decision-making of elite circles has global implications for policy, mobilization of resources, and power that affect societies
  • Diversity among leadership affects the financial performance of organizations

As long as women remain on the periphery of elite networks, their power and influence on organizations and society remain limited. We need women to finally be integrated into the inner circles of power. Studies like this one shine light into the dark corners of power and open possibilities for change.


Photo courtesy of Michigan Municipal League (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Leave a Comment