Progress on getting more women onto corporate boards has been painfully slow, but new research looking at the hiring patterns of thousands of companies over almost a decade could offer insight into the glacial pace of progress.

A report on gender diversity on corporate boards from McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University looked into the hiring patterns of 3,000 US companies from 2002-2011.

The researchers found a “gender matching heuristic”, meaning that when men leave they are more likely to be replaced by a man, while women are more likely to be hired to fill a space vacated by another woman.

While the number of women board members increased between 2002 and 2011, growth was slow, with women taking fewer than 15% of positions on boards.

The researchers found that gender matching means that “current efforts towards gender parity may falter, even when people have positive attitudes towards diversity”.

The report looks at data from US companies, and also uses lab tests to confirm the real-world results.

Business students were asked to appoint fictitious characters to an opening on a board of directors. When a woman was leaving, 68% replaced her with another woman. Gender matching was less strong in relation to men, with 58% choosing to replace a man with another man.

The majority of participants noted that they did not consider gender matching when making their decisions, indicating that this rationale would not be a deliberate part of the hiring process.

“This subconscious gender matching may help explain why the rate of increase of female participation on boards is so low, despite the voluminous public discussions about the importance of increasing female representation,” the report authors conclude.

Women make up an estimated 40% of the global workforce, with many countries seeing an almost equal split of women and men in the labour force. However, these numbers are not reflected on corporate boards.

Women hold less than a quarter of board seats in the majority of countries surveyed by Catalyst. Norway comes top, with women accounting for more than 35% of board seats at stock index companies.

The research from Georgetown University discovered a possible solution to increasing the number of women on boards. In the lab study, when more women than men were presented for consideration the number of females hired increased.

Catherine Tinsley, the study’s author, said in a statement: “Our work underscores the importance of creating a pipeline of talented women in the workplace.”

Increasing the number of women available as candidates can help improve women’s chances. However, even in these cases the study still found a gender matching effect.

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