A new study examined how medical products companies think and act when they decide whether to recall one of their products, which include medical devices and pharmaceuticals.

The study found companies with women on their board of directors are significantly more likely to recall more products and they do it faster. The reason, according to the researchers, seems to be that these companies set a tone that puts rapid response and patient safety before the careers of company executives.

Study tracks recall decisions and counts women board members

The researchers looked at 4,271 medical product recalls issued by 92 companies, all of which were FDA regulated and publicly traded.

They found that firms issued high-severity product recalls 28 days sooner if the board had any female directors than if their boards were male-only.

The number of women on the board also made a difference. Companies with one female board member issued recalls much like all-male boards. Those with two female board members acted faster, and those with three acted even faster.

Less severe recalls get more attention with women directors

Not all recalls are alike. The FDA recognizes recalls of low, moderate and high severity depending on how serious and even life-threatening the FDA finds the product defect to be. Because low-severity defects allow a board to use their discretion without FDA oversight, they are more sensitive probes of a company’s decision-making traits.

Firms with female directors issued more than twice the number of low-severity recalls (120% more) than those with all-male boards of directors. With low-severity recalls, just one female board member made a measurable difference in the company’s recall behavior.

Safety, speed and the presumption of a recall

The team calls for more research to explore the reasons for these differences. However, based partly on interviews the team conducted with executives, they point to differences in the tone and priorities the boards of directors adopt.

Here, it is important to understand that company managers, not the boards of directors, make recall decisions. A primary role of the boards is to set priorities, direction and culture.

Their interviews suggest that at least some firms with female directors focus almost exclusively on patient safety and, if the decision does not come within a very short time limit, the firm recalls the product by default. With all-male directors, their interviews suggest firms focus on cost-benefit analyses and how the recall may affect careers.