By Melissa J. Anderson

According to a new global survey [PDF] of over 1000 board directors by Women Corporate Directors, Heidrick & Struggles, Professor Boris Groysberg of Harvard Business School, and researcher Deborah Bell, men and women had remarkably similar views on the most critical issues facing companies today – economic outlook, regulatory concerns, business challenges.

“Gender differences practically disappeared when we looked at how men and women directors think about issues like the economy,” said Bonnie Gwin, vice chairman and co-managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles’ North American Board and CEO Practice. “These bottom-line business issues tend to allow for the greatest consensus in the boardroom.”

In fact, both men and women both named the “regulatory environment” as the number one challenge facing their companies. Second, both named the need to “attract and retain top talent.”

But that’s where the similarities ended. On issues of talent and diversity, male and female viewpoints were considerably different.

Talent is a Key Issue

The survey revealed that both men and women see talent as a key concern. But almost no directors had extensive experience in succession planning. Gwin explained, “Astonishingly, only 1% of women and zero percent of men rated succession planning as their strongest area of board expertise.”

She continued, “Additionally, although finding the next generation of leadership is critical to the health and prosperity of an organization, only 40% of respondents globally said that their boards had an effective succession planning process for directors.”

Looking at the results, it seems as if directors know succession planning and talent is an area they must tackle. But very few are equipped to do so effectively, when considering the level of expertise needed to develop successful and competent leaders.

In the area of increasing gender diversity, men and women placed responsibility in different corners. Women said board leadership should champion board diversity. Men on the other hand placed responsibility in the developing a better pipeline.

Bell commented, “Boards continue to struggle with diversity and our year-to-year findings have, unfortunately, not shown boards making progress in this area.”

She continued, “In 2012, we found that 46% of U.S. directors and 57% of directors outside the U.S. could not say that seating a diverse representation on the board was a priority for their boards, and less than half (47% of U.S. and 35% of non-U.S.) could say their boards had adopted measures that successfully advanced diversity on the board. The percentages for 2011 were almost identical.”

Men were more likely to cite a lack of women in the executive suite as the reason there the numbers aren’t moving (45% of men versus 18% of women). Women on the other hand, more frequently pointed to networks being male dominated.

Perception Gap

This study revealed a perception gap in how male and female directors view the issue of board diversity. Men seem more likely to place the blame in the hands of corporate management, where few women ascend to the top layer of leadership. Women want board directors to make a more concerted effort and take responsibility for director diversity.

“There is a clear perception gap when it comes to evaluating how the still predominantly male business networks impact the number of women on boards,” said Susan Stautberg, co-founder and co-chair of WomenCorporateDirectors. “Women see a real need to develop the kinds of networks that have historically been the path to directorships. These more diverse networks will create greater success for the company.”

Better expertise regarding succession planning on behalf of both men and women directors would help to create a clearer picture of who gets into the boardroom and how. By building a better understanding of the succession process men and women directors could come to a consensus on how to increase diversity here.

Professor Groysberg explained, “Given that for many companies human assets are a major source of competitive advantage and given the very large differences in performance between the top people and everybody else, it is becoming increasingly critical for boards to be involved in talent management to assure that their companies’ most important assets and competitive advantage are not being mismanaged.”

He continued, “On many boards, creating an inclusive culture for the organization has not been a point of focus.”

“The increased importance of diversity to organizational success, however, is compelling boards to make it part of their strategic focus. Unfortunately, many boards lack awareness of best practices in this area and are uncertain about how to integrate diversity and inclusiveness initiatives into their organization’s long-term strategy.”