All On Boards: Efforts Increase To Place Women Leaders On Corporate Boards

The move to get more women on corporate boards has made some progress, but more needs to be done.

The move to get more women on corporate boards has made some progress, but more needs to be done.

One of the problems is the pipeline.

That’s according to Holly Copeland, director of public affairs and corporate social responsibility at Horizon Pharma. She is on a mission as advisory board member of Matter to “help connect women candidates with large public boards.”

Matter itself has a board that has 25 percent female participation (five of the 20 board members are women), higher than the average, but not near parity.

The move to get more #womenonboards has made some progress, but more needs to be done.

Recently, Matter, a group of healthcare company innovators, launched 3.8, a targeted Chicago-based initiative to train and identify strong female candidates to match with health companies’ boards of directors. Horizon funded the leadership program with $25,000 and they will have this year four women added to four corporate boards, Copeland says.

It’s a small start, to be sure.

This effort “addresses the elephant in the room,” says Copeland. “Women say,’ I don’t know where to start, I want to be on a board, but I am not part of these conversations.’” She adds, “We are able to build the bridge.”

As increasing the number of women on boards is a national—and international –priority for many companies, non-profits and initiatives, such as Paradigm For Parity,   TheBoardlist, Women Serve On Boards, 2020 Women On Board and The Athena Alliance, the dial has not moved far or fast enough.

“While the Women Serve on Boards movement has successfully pressured a few Fortune 500 companies to recruit women on their boards, in the short term of under five years it is difficult to measure how much progress in the U.S. we as a society made overall,” says Olga V. Mack, founder of Women Serve On Boards and General Counsel at ClearSlide.

Increasing the number of #womenonboards is a national—and international —priority for many companies

“This of course makes sense,” says Mack, who previously worked at Zoosk, Visa Inc., Pacific Art League of Palo Alto, and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. “The process of inventorying the skills of the existing board members, identifying the gaps, figuring out how they will be filled, and the process of recruiting new board members is deliberate and takes years. So, the stagnant or event slightly lower statistics are hard to interpret in the short term and certainly I would not use them to suggest that we made no progress overall,” says Mack, who serves on as an advisory board member of ChannelMeter, Contract Wrangler, and TimeJoy, all early stage startups.

Samantha Harrington writes in Forbes that the irony is increased profits for companies with more women in top leadership and board posts has not led to more companies increasing their percentages of women in those spots.

Bloomberg’s number crunching of 2016 returns from Asia-Pacific companies found that the quarter of companies with the largest share of female managers saw an average of 4.6 percent return on assets. Meanwhile, the 25 percent of companies with the fewest female managers saw an average of 3.7 percent returns,” Harrington writes.

“Similarly, researchers at Nordea Bank AB, Scandinavia’s biggest bank, looked at female leader’s impact on a company’s annualized return. The annualized return number measures not only your average return but also the amount of time it took to get your return. Yet, another study from 2020 Women on Board released this summer found that, during the past three years, nearly half of the biggest 75 initial public offerings in the U.S. had no women on their corporate boards,” Harrington writes.

The problem is acute in tech companies where “more than 30 percent of public company tech boards have no women at all, compared with 78 percent of Russell 3000 companies that have at least one woman on their boards, Equilar found. That figure is improving. As recently as 2013, nearly half of those public company tech boards had no women,” Jessica Guyunn, writes in USA Today.

“The proportion of women named to the boards of companies in the Russell 3000 index was 16.2 percent in 2017, according to research firm Equilar. For tech companies, that figure was 14.3 percent, the latest evidence that the industry continues to lag others.”

Guyunn adds, “Yet Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, who started TheBoardlist in 2015 to highlight women qualified to be directors of tech companies, says she spots glimmers of hope as smaller firms begin to add more female directors. Even though it’s improving, the statistical picture is generally grim. According to TheBoardlist, 91 percent of tech unicorn board seats and nearly 93 percent of private tech company board seats are held by men. Since July 2016, 74 percent of board seats of unicorn tech companies and 81 percent of private company board seats were filled by men.”

Still, some major companies, corporations and industries are making definitive moves to include more women on boards.

Some major companies are making definitive moves to include more #womenonboards

According to The Street, the Walt Disney Co. “has built a business supergroup” as it recently  “announced that it has added General Motors Co. ( GM) CEO Mary Barra to the team.” Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook is already a board member.

In the venture capital sector, Michal Lev-Ram writes in Fortune, that “VC firm Sequoia Capital has been running a program that pairs technical women across its portfolio companies with mentors at other organizations. Dubbed Ascent, the initiative was started in the summer of 2016 by Sequoia’s human capital partner, Joe Dobrenski. Step one was to enlist an online mentoring matchmaker called Everwise (which also happens to be one of the firm’s portfolio companies) and survey more than 500 women and men across various startups. Not surprisingly, the findings showed that women often lacked access to relevant female role models and felt alone in their organizations.”

Lev-Ram writes, “Over the last year, Sequoia matched 50 women from portfolio companies like Eventbrite, GitHub, and Evernote with 50 more senior women from other organizations. The second class of mentors and mentees, which will start the one-year program later this week, will include 200 total participants.”

In the investments arena, Randy Diamond writes in Pensions & Investments, “The $330.2 billion California Public Employees’ Retirement System, is stepping up efforts to increase the number of women on corporate boards, spokeswoman Megan White confirmed. The latest effort involves sending letters to 504 companies in the Russell 3000 index that have no women on their boards of directors.”

CalPERS is asking “that each company develop and disclose its corporate board diversity policy and implementation plan to address the lack of diversity,” a CalPERS news release said.

Mack weighs in on the growing push to include more women. “The number may be a normal short term turbulence that we have to navigate toward parity on the corporate boards in the U.S. The good news, the level of awareness of gender and diversity on corporate boards has certainly risen.”

She adds,”Many companies, their leaders, and their boards are eager to address this issue at least to some extent both because it may be profitable and a right thing to do. So overall, I think we may be in the beginning of this transformation. In fact, I firmly believe that the U.S. companies need to be encouraged, educated, and equipped to make correct choices. That is where individuals, organizations, and policymakers can be helpful.”

As movements grow around the country to push for more women on boards of directors in all sectors, Copeland as an advisor to Matter says, “We would love to look back and be able to see this huge community of women serving on boards and investing in companies.”

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About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon