What Holds Women Back from the Boardroom

What Holds Women Back from the Boardroom

There they were at the awards ceremony, talking like old chums at a table ten feet away: the 43rd president of the United States, the founder of EDS and the CEO of Exxon Mobil. Seated shoulder-to-shoulder, the trio loomed like a phalanx primed to defend the rich and the powerful. But then a boy with a severe disability took the stage and with extraordinary composure, told over a thousand attendees how the Boy Scouts of America had changed his life. Many in the mostly male audience wept. As we rose to applaud him, the boundaries that separated us melted away, and in that moment, we stood united like brothers.

Whether you see the century-old boy’s club as a benevolent guardian of tradition or conservative to the point of intolerance, you can’t help but admire the Boy Scouts for preparing young men to lead in every echelon of American society. Seeing the success that mentorship can bring, I also saw George W. Bush, Ross Perot and Rex Tillerson in a new light. Maybe they weren’t pillars of some impenetrable fortress of power so much as seasoned leaders and dads who saw value in shepherding the next generation toward peaks they might not reach on their own.

By contrast, my singing at retirement homes and sewing patches on vests in the Campfire Girls was loaded with good intentions, but no matter how much our well-meaning moms tried, they weren’t prepared to give lessons in leadership. In the years that followed, my lack of brothers, lack of interest in sports, and lack of experience running a large company compounded my lack of preparation for the male-dominated world of corporate boards.

Fortunately, the owners and investors of an innovative company saw potential beyond these deficiencies and invited me to join their board anyway. This makes them unusual, considering the current stats. Women still hold just a small number of corporate board seats. In 2014, only 17.7 percent of corporate directors of Fortune 1000 companies were women, according to the 2020 Women on Boards Gender Diversity Index.

At the same time, the “female economy” is on the rise. According to a study commissioned by the Global Banking Alliance for Women and supported by McKinsey & Co., women as a population segment could be called the “biggest emerging market” in the world, surpassing India and China combined. In the U.S., women comprise about half of the workforce, hold half of all management positions, and account for 10 million majority-owned, privately-held firms. Moreover, women are responsible for almost 80 percent of all consumer spending.

Speaking on a panel for 2020 Women on Boards at the University of Dallas, Joy Macci, a former tennis star turned leadership coach to corporate executives and Olympic athletes, used the example of the tennis economy, valued at $5.5. billion.

“Women drive the bulk of sales in the tennis industry, yet their representation on those boards is extremely small,” said Macci. “Considering women’s influence as consumers, doesn’t having more of them on corporate boards make sense?”

Dr. Macci wasn’t arguing for diversity for the sake of equality so much as making a point that women on boards can be a winning strategy for the companies that reach out to them. She advises women with a taste for corporate governance to “establish a track record, develop the skills and network.”

But even the most qualified women might prepare for some pushback from those who don’t see the status quo as a problem.

Smashing Barriers to Board Membership

The subject of board diversity, whether gender or racial, doesn’t inspire neutrality. In fact, it can invoke outright hostility.

“Although some viewers applauded us, we were surprised by the backlash we received when we announced this topic,” said Niki McCuistion, producer of McCuistion TV, which recently aired The Board Diversity Challenge. “The comments we and our governance experts raised on the need for diversity on boards didn’t sit well!”

Pointing out why resistance toward diversity can be detrimental to companies, McCuistion explained:

Fortune 500 companies with more women directors on average outperformed those with fewer women board members on a broad range of financial indicators – by 26 percent on return on invested capital and 16% on return on sales (according to a 2011 Catalyst study) — yet too often companies opt for board members who look and act just like them. It’s still a good old boys club.

Whether real or perceived, barriers to board membership for women may not be intentional so much as habitual. CEOs traditionally have surrounded themselves with board members who are experienced CEOs from other large companies, wrote Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire in her book The Board Game. As she explained,

If boards limit their candidate pool of women to CEOs to draw from, there’s only a very small pool of women CEOs…and they are already serving on other major boards. The criteria has to expand to include women from senior executive positions, women retired from government service and women business owners, as well as women from academia.

Women have to want it, too. Those interested in serving on boards should seek out the positions and present themselves as qualified candidates, highlighting executive experience or equivalent professional experience in key areas that are beneficial to the company. Directors should be able to read, understand, and offer suggestions and comments on financial statements. Board members should also be representative of the constituents that a company serves, including ethnicity, gender, and age.

Fortunately, the women proffering this advice are more interesting in being trailblazers than tokens. Given the benefits to companies of having women on boards — including (but not limited to) their unique perspectives as a key audience, collaborative style, and willingness to ask questions that men won’t — the need for women in the boardroom is clear even if the path is not.

I confess that I wasn’t thinking about helping other women when I accepted the invitation to join a board. I only saw it as a chance to escalate my own professional growth and support a company I respect. But in seeking guidance to become better, I discovered an opportunity to be part of something bigger. As moderator Kimberly Fields reminded us in closing the panel discussion for 2020 Women on Boards, “The true measure of success is preparing someone to go after you.”

Professional women can join the movement by enhancing their skills, networking, and staying open to invitations for board membership. Existing board members — male and female alike — can help by staying on the lookout for worthy candidates and showing them the way. After all, it’s a strategy that has worked for the boys for centuries.

This article was originally published on Huffington Post.

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