Much has been made over gender diversity on corporate boards in recent years. Study after study after study has shown that companies perform better when they have women on their boards of directors; it’s fair to assume that even the most crotchety, least woke board member would admit that gender diversity is an admirable goal, in theory.
Or is it? According to a new survey of 884 directors of public companies, 10 percent of current board members think the ideal number of women on a corporate board is somewhere between 20 percent of the board and zero. Zero! One in 10 directors mulled over the prospect of sharing a conference table with women and thought, “I could tolerate zero women, or maybe a very tiny proportion of women, but that is absolutely it.”
The head of PwC’s Governance Insights Center, which conducted the survey, told Fortune that the not-unpopular desire for a board with as few women as possible is largely attributable to the old-school men who populate most corporate boards and, thus, the survey base. The average age of a board member of a major U.S. company is 63 and rising, and 83 percent of PwC’s survey participants are men.
Just as disconcerting as the 10 percent in the “few to no women, please” club is the 43 percent of participants who said the “optimal” share of women on a corporate board is 21 to 40 percent. (Women currently occupy 20 percent of S&P 500 companies’ board seats.) This means that more than half of all board members think women deserve significantly fewer than half the seats on corporate boards. Since women make up more than half of the world’s population, this suggests that more than half of current board members think women are inherently less capable of serving in corporate leadership positions. Another 43 percent said women should occupy 41 to 50 percent of board seats; only 5 percent thought the “optimal” proportion of women was greater than 50 percent.
Other survey responses indicate that board members are confused about what diversity means, why it’s important, and what it takes to get there. Nearly all directors—96 percent—agreed that board diversity is “important,” but only 26 percent very much believe that there are a significant number of qualified “diverse” candidates in the world. As Matt Yglesias noted in Slate in 2013, there’s no unequivocal measure for board qualification, and white men usually get those gigs because they know other white men who recommend them to still other white men, perpetuating a network of privilege almost completely divorced from the concept of meritocracy.
There’s some reason to hope for incremental change: This year, 41 percent of directors rated gender diversity as “very important,” a four-point increase from the 2014 survey. But without targeted propaganda efforts, men on corporate boards will likely remain in their insulated bubbles of male supremacist ignorance. Only 24 percent of male directors surveyed said they “very much” believe board diversity leads to “enhanced company performance,” which suggests that they’re not reading all the data-driven blog posts we’ve been painstakingly writing for their edification.