Studies have shown that firms benefit from corporate boards comprising men and women. In a diversity study reported in 2016 by the National University of Singapore (Business) School, companies with more than 10 percent of female board members enjoy on average higher returns on assets and equities than companies with less female representation.

Yet in Asia, women’s share of board seats is low and uneven, varying from 2.6 percent and 3.3 percent in Korea and Japan respectively to 7.7 percent in Singapore to 8.6 percent in India; compared to 21.9 percent in Australia, 26.1 percent in the United Kingdom, and 18.7 percent in the United States.

There is indeed a gender glass ceiling in board representation. But women can overcome it, and some do.

By engaging in a predominantly male activity, women may gain additional social capital, even beyond that of male golfers.

To understand better the mechanisms which women use to overcome impediments to participation in the executive labour market, we studied the role of social capital using data from golf games. As a largely male-dominated sport, we studied whether women who play golf are also more likely to serve on the board of directors of publicly-listed companies.

In corporate Singapore, golf is an important social network tool. But research shows that social networks often operate along gender lines. As such, golf being a male-dominated sport lends itself to reinforce social networks and bonding among men, potentially limiting its usefulness to female golf players.

‘Playing the boys’ game’

However, one may argue that playing golf allows women to enter prominent social networks and increase their involvement in the labor market. By engaging in a predominantly male activity, women may gain additional social capital, even beyond that of male golfers. In other words, “playing the boys’ game” may render female golfers being accepted by predominantly male corporate boards.

To address this, we studied the directors of 431 Singapore-based firms listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange over a 15-year period. These firms have been actively traded in the last two years. Firms classified as REIT, Trust, Venture Capital and Mutual Fund were excluded. We also gathered data from the same period from golfers’ handicap books, allowing us to match directors with their golfing statistics. From these two sources of information, we were able to generate a comprehensive database of 10,584 golfers and 1,646 directors.

Almost 9 in 10 of golfers in our sample are male. Among the board of directors, 90.6 percent are male. Together, the odds ratio by gender and board membership stands at 0.094 for female, suggesting that on average, females are 90 percent less likely to serve on the boards of directors.

While this may not be all that surprising, does playing golf help break the gender glass ceiling in board representation? We found that golfers have a higher probability of holding a directorship with an odds ratio of 59.9. However, when comparing the odds ratio by gender, we found that playing golf is associated with a stronger propensity to serve on corporate boards for women than for men by 54 percent. Women who play golf are 74 percent more likely to serve on corporate boards.

Interestingly, this was particularly more evident among firms with larger than smaller market capitalization. For small firms, golfing did not affect female board membership. Instead, female golfers are 125 percent more likely to serve on a board relative to male golfers in large firms.

Barriers to networking

This gives some evidence of social capital at work. Larger firms are presumably more hierarchical. To be able to get on the board despite the hierarchy suggests social capital is at play.

The use of social capital is further reinforced when we study by industry. Industries that have low female representation have prohibitive barriers to networking. But if such industries have a higher female board representation relative to high-female-representation industries, and these female board members are golf players, then it is likely that social capital is present.

Indeed so. We observed that women are more likely to serve on the board of directors in low female representation industries (by 117 percent) if they play golf, relative to their male counterparts.

Finally, we noticed that the golf skills between female directors and non-directors, and between male directors and non-directors were no different.

Our study highlights two important issues. First, there is a gender glass ceiling and there are means to overcome gender disparity. In particular, engaging in social activities that run counter to social norms or behaviours is an important mechanism used by women to partially mitigate this glass ceiling in corporate boards. “Playing the boys’ games”, in this case golf, is effective in boosting women’s representation on corporate boards.

Second, social capital and networking foster career outcomes in the executive labour market. While this works for both men and women, women’s involvement in a male-dominated social activity such as golf appears to enhance their probability of serving on a board in a large listed company.