BI Norwegian Business School has begun a research project identifying ways to empower women to become corporate leaders. Donatella de Paoli, Associate Professor, Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour, elaborates on this research by providing five concrete actions to address this matter.

If we want more women to be corporate leaders, we need to do something about the culture, images and symbols that surround us, according to Donatella de Paoli. She proposes five concrete actions.

BI Research: How to take women to the top

For women who want to be at the forefront in business, meeting rooms with paintings of former male executives in gilded frames will be a reminder that there is no guaranteed path to the top.

We live in a world where organisations of all types are full of tangible impressions of history. The business world has been, and continues to be, primarily a man’s world with a masculine culture. Traditions are preserved and reinforced through historical artefacts such as board rooms, furnishings, photos, dress codes, and the like.

Reinforce men’s status

The golf club, the gym, and gentlemen’s clubs are places where top executives, chairmen and investors like to meet, and where women do not fit in. These visible, tangible manifestations of this engrained organisational culture both preserve and reinforce the power and status that men have.

Such symbolic impressions of history create a feeling of powerlessness and alienate women. The organisational culture is fortified and displayed through symbolic and visible tangible elements (Schein, 1984).

Companies and organisations that want to be competitive and that want future-oriented leaders must start using all the talents and all the competence that exists in the society. They need to make the top positions attractive to women, but they must also make a conscious effort to allow women to have the same opportunities as men to get these jobs.

Achieving this will not only require concrete actions, but also a fundamental change in organisational culture. The culture among the top management in businesses tends to promote the status quo, not diversity and female participation. The persistent low percentage of women at the top is very clear.

Need to change the culture, images and symbols

In order to change an organisational culture, it is not only appropriate but necessary to do something about the visible expressions and tangible elements; so-called artefacts.

An artefact is defined as an ‘an artificial product, something made by humans and thus any element of a working environment that is interpreted through the senses and has specific intentions, aimed at satisfying a need or an objective’ (Gagliardi, 1990).

Culture is made up of ideology, values and norms, but it is often invisible and difficult to interpret. This is an important perspective in the quest to achieve greater female representation in top executive positions, because artefacts are visible and symbolic tangible confirmations of the organisational culture.

Artefacts impact many important processes, such as a person’s identity and affiliation, as well as an organisation’s brand.

Attract women

An ongoing study is showing how artefacts can be perceived as both alienating, marginalising and emotionally oppressive by academic women in a male-dominated academic institution (Traavik and De Paoli, 2018).

In order to attract women to leadership positions and get them to want to remain there, it is necessary to change an entrenched, traditional and conservative male culture – which means that the visible artefacts clearly need to be dealt with.

Portraits of former male executives which can be found in most board rooms are visible symbolic confirmations of the history, values and culture.

Use of images in internal and external communication, whether digital or on paper, are also important symbolic signals.

Board room project for inspiration

The story of how the Stockholm School of Economics handled their symbolic and important board rooms can be a source of inspiration for other organisations. ‘The Board Room project was initially established to delve deeper into the School’s aesthetic history.

The board room was the natural starting point because nothing else better represented the intersection with the past; the symbolic history and the present.

The board room is centrally located in the School of Economics, just inside the President’s office on the first floor. Furnished simply, with dark chairs and a table in the middle. It has an important symbolic function at the school, and is used actively in relation to different groups, including students, employees and external parties.

The board room has oil paintings of the school’s founders adorning the wall, all men in large, imposing frames, representatives of important investors and business families in Sweden. Because their descendants, grandchildren and relatives are still on the school’s board, the oil paintings could not simply be discarded.

This is where a new idea originated; the idea of having female artists make art that could place the history and oil paintings of men into a new perspective, interpreting the past through a modern gaze. It was also decided that the room would be returned to how it was when the school was founded, with the same colour on the wall and the same furniture. The film made about the ‘the Board Room’ project, provides good insight into the purpose of the project and how the female artists interpreted and redefined the status quo in the form of new layers and new art.

What we can learn

‘The Board Room’ project at the Stockholm School of Economics shows that it is possible to honour the past, keep symbolic artefacts while also incorporating a modern view and values.

Art and artists are an excellent way of reinterpreting the artefacts of the past. It also shows how important artefacts are, both for interpreting and understanding the past, and as signals and guides for the future. The project also illustrates that men and masculine values permeate business history, and that it is necessary to do something about symbolic artefacts in order to change the organisational culture.

Easier to change what’s visible

It is easier to start with the visible and this also gives a clear indication of direction. Considerable resources and competence went into this project. This, in addition to restoring the board room to its original state from the early 1900s, has resulted in artistic works and installations, as well as an intellectual interpretation of the entire art project with texts by the artists, art historians, academics and others.

If we look at the website, we can see that this project has resulted in a book, films and articles about the project, which promote the Stockholm School of Economics in an alternative and striking way. It puts the School of Economics into the modern age.

In order to succeed with changing top-level management cultures that are masculine and alienate women, we need to do what I have called ’empowering women’; with determination and a considerable willingness and effort to change the status quo.

A situation where competence in society (read=women) is not used to lead companies will not serve us well. It would also not be functionally or financially smart, if we want to address the challenges of the future.

The question is how artefacts and symbols can be used to achieve organisational change?

Five actions to empower women

I have made a short 5-point list of important steps that other organisations can take:

  1. Have outsiders, preferably experts, analyse and interpret the artefacts that characterise the organisation to determine which values and culture they communicate in relation to gender and leadership.
  2. Involve the management in a dialogue to determine to what extent the artefacts communicate the values that the organisation wants for the future, to promote diversity and greater female representation.
  3. Establish an internal work group or project with the purpose of redefining the historical artefacts and adding new ones to signal a desire for diversity and more women.
  4. Write, make a film and a comprehensive communication plan for the project.
  5. Use the artefacts actively in internal and external communication by the organisation.

This article is based on Donatella de Paoli’s lecture “Kvinneløftet – Kultur, bilder og symboler som virkemidler?”, held at BI on 8 March 2018. She presents an ongoing research project that is being conducted together with Associate Professor Laura E. Mercer Traavik at the BI Norwegian Business School.


Gagliardi, P. (Ed.) (1990): Symbols & Artefacts. Views of the Corporate Landscape. Aldine de Gruyter. New York.
Rafaeli, A. & Pratt, M. G. (2006): (eds.) Artifacts & organizations – beyond mere symbolism. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, London.
Schein, E., H. (1984) Coming to a new awareness of Organizational Culture. Sloan Management Review, 25:2, p.3.
Traavik, L. and De Paoli, D. (2018) Material artifacts as emotional abuse in a business school? Abstract accepted for The Nordic Work Life Conference, Stream 7a: Work Environment Issues,13-15 June, Oslo, Norway.

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