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What inspired you to become a professor?

I was driven to become an academic because I was passionate about the pursuit of knowledge. Nothing beats the rush of scientific discovery! But being an academic is not easy. There are many barriers to doing the work that I love. The reason I remain in academia is because I still see the potential for academic research and teaching to help change society. I hope that through my research and teaching I can help shape how people think about governance. A particular concern of mine is how to reduce the inequality that can arise from a lack of transparency and accountability, i.e. from core governance problems. Given the many ongoing crises the world faces, I think the need for academics to hold a mirror up to society is more important than ever.

International Women’s Day is a tribute to the brave women who campaigned for women’s rights in the past. Which women have most inspired you in your life?

I draw on many sources of inspiration. But, as a governance scholar, I am particularly inspired when people speak truth to power. One recent example that I celebrated was the stand feminists and feminist organizations, including the International Association of Feminist Economists, took against the collaboration between BlackRock and UN Women. Over 600 signatories signed a letter to UN Women demanding an end to a collaboration they viewed as serving primarily to sanitize the reputation of BlackRock, and they succeeded. I also applaud the courage of  Zoé Ziani who, as a graduate student, discovered the anomalies in Francesca Gino’s research, became a whistleblower and collaborated with Data Colada in subjecting Gino’s and Dan Ariely’s research to rigorous scientific scrutiny. The more than 600 fellows of the Institute for Labor Economics, IZA, who demanded a change in the leadership of IZA give me hope that academic culture can change if we want it to.

Why are there still so few female scholars conducting corporate governance research?

There are few women in finance more generally, not just in governance. In fact, together with Jing Xu, I show that women’s representation in finance is worse than in other STEM fields. Because finance scholars believe in efficient markets, they often think the absence of women in the field is a sign that the women are just not good enough. But they forget that the conditions necessary for the market to be efficient do not hold in academia. I attribute women’s lower representation to the fact that the returns to power are higher in finance than in other fields. The absence of good governance, in the form of transparency and accountability, perpetuates power imbalances by allowing a culture to flourish that makes it harder for women to succeed in the field. As Michelle Lowry and I show, experiences of discrimination is the most important factor explaining women’s lower job satisfaction in finance.

Why is there an underrepresentation of women in corporate leadership roles? (are they the same reasons?)

My research with various co-authors shows that there are important societal and cultural factors that relate to women’s relative underrepresentation in corporate leadership. With Tom Kirchmeier I show that countries with more female labor force participation have more female directors. Women still bear most care-giving duties, yet many countries do not provide sufficient support of their care-giving roles to enable them to work at a level that is required to advance to a corporate leadership position. In addition to a lack of institutional support, women face negative cultural attitudes towards their work and roles. My co-authored paper “Gendered Prices” shows, for example, that culture helps explain the price discount for art by women. These explanations are not specific to a given domain. However, economists know that competition can help reduce discrimination and force organizations to adopt good practices. There may be more competition in the corporate world than in academia.

What do you believe are the most effective strategies for organizations to foster an inclusive corporate culture that encourages gender diversity in leadership roles?

Before enacting change, I think organizations would benefit from asking more questions and listening. Many say they listen, but they often don’t ask questions first. But if you don’t know what the problem is, how can you solve it? Instead of asking why women’s representation is low, many organizations simply try to hire more women. This strategy may not work. For example, my research with Min Kim shows that diversity can decline even if hiring is gender-balanced. If an organization has a problem with culture that helps explain why women’s representation is low, it is unclear how hiring more women can address the problem. Indeed, the organization may be setting the women up to fail by hiring them into a toxic culture, thereby furthering gender imbalances and entrenching the culture.

What advice would you give to aspiring female leaders looking to break into traditionally male-dominated industries in the fields related to corporate governance?

To survive in these fields, I think it is important to recognize that many barriers to advancement are, quite literally, man-made. They do not necessarily have a scientific foundation. For example, many universities have paper quotas. If you have more papers, you will be considered better. If you have fewer, you are considered worse. But I have yet to see the economic model that shows that knowledge advances faster if we write more papers. Presumably, we should focus on writing better papers. The problem with paper quotas is that they may systematically disadvantage women. Together with Jing Xu, I show that top female scholars in finance have fewer papers. But they have higher citation impact. What’s more important? Recognizing that the metrics by which we are judged are flawed is important because it helps ensure that we don’t internalize negative feedback as much. Why should I lose confidence because I am judged to be inferior based on an unscientific metric that may be discriminatory?

What future trends or developments do you anticipate in the area of women's representation in corporate governance and academia?

Obviously, I hope that more women will join the field. But for women, and men, to enjoy working in the field, I think we need to do more to fix the field’s governance. As a governance scholar, I don’t view it as a badge of honor that many people feel comfortable talking about the field only if they can do so anonymously, i.e. on Economics Job Market Rumors (EJMR). We need more academics, especially senior academics, discussing how science can become more inclusive, and better. What is the point of academic freedom if we do not exercise it? And what is the point of tenure if we don’t exercise our academic freedom? To quote Zoé Ziani: "Tenure exists to free researchers of politics, groupthink, fear of retaliation, and other issues that prevent “normal” employees from speaking truth to power. Researchers need to start using this privilege: …” As governance scholars, I feel we have a special responsibility to practice what we preach. Otherwise, our work loses all credibility.

Renée B. Adams is a Professor of Finance at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford and a Fellow of the European Corporate Governance Institute. She co-founded AFFECT, the American Finance Association’s committee for women, in 2015 and chaired it until 2020. She continues to explore solutions to inequality in her research.

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