Women own a third of the nation’s businesses. They make up a third of the nation’s lawyers, and half of the medical students. Yet they still barely make an appearance in corporate governance. Only 10 percent of the board members at Idaho companies are women. They hold about 15 percent of the board seats at all U.S. Fortune 1,000 companies.
Business schools and analysts make a strong case that corporate boards work most effectively when they reflect their customer base. Given that women make most family buying decisions, it’s obvious why their representation would make a difference to the bottom line in many sectors. And in all areas of business, companies with boards that reflect the makeup of society do better financially than companies that don’t.
So what’s the holdup? On Dec. 12, a group called 2020 gathered panelists together in a few dozen North American cities, including Boise, to try to find out. 2020, a campaign that started in Boston two years ago, is working to raise female corporate board representation nationwide to 20 percent by 2020.
Nobody claims there’s a move to keep women out of the boardroom. In fact, corporations work hard to recruit women into leadership. Eileen Barber, a co-founder of Keynetics who spoke on the panel, brought four of her company’s vice presidents with her Dec. 12. They’re all women. Yet Keynetics only has one women –Barber – on its board.
Barber said it’s difficult for professional women to find the time for board service. She noted that non-profit organizations have much higher proportion of women on their boards – about half. Yet corporate board work takes less time than non-profit work, she said.
Another problem is that women don’t traditionally pursue board opportunities, said lawyer and engineer Britt Ide, who organized Boise’s 2020 event. Ide said women seem to think they should wait to be asked to join a board, while men tend to go ahead and look for a place at the table.
Yet serving on a board is good for your career. Panelist Lesley Slaton McNorton, a senior manager at Hewlett-Packard, sees pursuing a board opportunity as an individual responsibility, like any other career development path. And like many opportunities, it won’t track you down; you need to go look for it.
Those insights don’t solve the whole problem, but they do give some hints of how to help corporate boards reach a similar makeup to the population at large. Ide asked the 70 or so women at the panel Dec. 12 to think about companies where they would like to serve, and then to start learning more about them and getting to know the principal decision-makers.
She also asked the audience to remind other women they shouldn’t wait to be asked. Panelist Mark Solon, who estimates he has served on about 40 for-profit and non-profit boards (he’s only 47) suggested books and websites for would-be board members who want to hone their financial skills before taking the first step toward board service.
It’s not rocket science. But as McNorton said, it’s a smart move.
Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of Idaho Business Review.