Although female representation on corporate boards has increased, there’s still a long road ahead.
Last year, women comprised 16.9 percent of members on boards of directors among the 50 largest publicly reporting companies in the greater Chicago area. Reporting this dismal statistic, The Chicago Network (TCN) 2013 Census also noted that equal representation between women and men on corporate boards will not exist for another 71 years.
Gender inequality in the boardroom is mutually destructive, and as TCN President/CEO Kate Bensen observes, “Companies won’t perform as well if they don’t make diversity and inclusion a top priority. It’s important to have a number of valuable perspectives and skill sets around the board table.”
Roxanne Decyk, a retired executive vice president of government relations at Royal Dutch Shell and former executive committee member, was recently appointed to her fifth corporate board (at DigitalGlobe). Ms. Decyk started sitting on boards internationally in 1985. “While diversity on boards is in the news today, women have been serving on boards for a very long time,” she explains, noting that the real issues are that our representation hasn’t progressed fast enough and that we lack a broader presence.
So what’s the problem? Ms. Decyk points to one factor that impacts the U.S. in particular: A majority of companies have no term limits as boards do in other countries. As a result, people can serve on boards for decades, crippling the turnover rate. Ms. Bensen agrees, saying there simply aren’t many new opportunities for anyone to serve on a board, regardless of gender. She is currently working on the 2014 Census, which plans to focus on board turnover and tenure as a roadblock to the progress of female board presence.
Both women argue that nominating committees and search consultants need to broaden their scope to fill those rare empty board seats. It’s common to continuously return to the same women, who already hold multiple seats on boards, for new appointments instead of reaching out to a wider pool of women that may not have previous board experience but are still highly valuable. Ms. Decyk recounts her experience on nominating committees: “There are a lot of companies that say, ‘Gosh this woman would be perfect, but of course she’s never served on a public board.’ And they say this about men, too.”
Thus far, Ms. Bensen and Ms. Decyk, find that the community is key to moving the composition of boards in the right direction. “There ought to be more women on boards and we should take it upon ourselves to influence the chairmen of other companies to get the job done,” Ms. Decyk suggests while speaking about her work with the 30% Club. The organization uses a successful grassroots approach to this problem, in which chairmen help other chairmen find qualified women for their boards, while also helping to groom women within a company’s ranks to create a larger pool of female candidates for future board appointments.
Of course, there is no substitute for excellence. Ms. Bensen explains that women who are interested in corporate board service must prepare themselves, especially through their ability to articulate how their skills can help the company in achieving its mission and goals. She and Ms. Decyk are among many other professional women working to help foster an environment of inclusion. As Ms. Bensen surmises, “It’s up to us to bring along the next generation of female leaders; it’s a fundamental part of our responsibility.”