Most Powerful Women

How women change the conversation on boards

November 13, 2013: 10:09 AM ET

A Morgan Stanley executive explains at Fortune's Most Powerful Women Asia event why boardrooms with more than one woman are so different.

By Scott Cendrowski, writer

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L to R: Pattie Sellers, Fortune; Alice Au, Spencer Stuart; Wei Sun Christianson, Morgan Stanley

FORTUNE -- Out of the half-dozen stage groupings at Fortune's Most Powerful Women event in Hong Kong on Tuesday, the panel that captured the most attention was one called "Boards Across Borders."

The topic of how to get more women on corporate boards is a lively one at every MPW event, especially so in Asia, where just 9% of corporate directors within Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index, for example, are women. But this discussion moved on from "how to shatter the glass ceiling" to "why it's so important that we do."

Panelist Wei Sun Christianson, Morgan Stanley's (MS) Asia-Pacific co-CEO, had perhaps the most interesting insight of the night. Christianson, a board member at Estée Lauder (EL), where seven of 15 directors are women, said more women within the boardroom literally changes the conversation. Women on Estée Lauder's board feel freer to talk, she said, and therefore have far more productive discussions.

MORE: Hong Kong: Not dead, and not standing still

It has had a "profound impact on boardroom behavior," Christianson said. "When we have a corporate board room of 50% women, it has really created dialogue," she said, and the ratio led to more "creative solutions to problems."

Christianson asked the audience how many times they found themselves the only woman in the room at corporate functions. There were head nods. "Subconsciously you are on the defensive," she said. "You have to demonstrate that you are smart." Even so on the world's most important corporate boards.

The moderator of the panel, Fortune's Pattie Sellers, finally asked the audience of leading businesswomen in Asia how many of them wanted to join their first board, or even serve on another. More than half the women raised their hands.

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