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Balance in the boardroom

We all know women have come a long way in the last few decades. But that wouldn’t be immediately obvious from a look at the corporate boardrooms in Idaho and around the United States.

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.


About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.


  1. Steve, from your comment, I believe we share the same conservative politics, and I agree Ms. Allen’s liberal bias sometimes shows through in her writing. Since I find her bias irrational and unrealistic, this is frustrating. I do think your criticism of this particular piece is misplaced. First, board composition is a very valid topic for a business column. Having sat on many boards I know board composition, and a diversity of views, is important. Here I have my own clear bias: while racial diversity is often irrevelevant (skin color doesn’t always equal different thinking), men and women ARE different, and they often think about issues differently. Having women on a board is beneficial; more would be better. Second, given the topic, I feared Ms. Allen would default into knee jerk liberalism (sexism!) as she looked at the issues, but she did not. Instead she provided very practical expanations for the low number of women on boards. And, surprise, surprise, she actually placed a large part of the blame on women themselves. Personal responsibility!

    So, again, while I do think we share similar conservative (i.e., realistic) views, it seems Ms. Allen was not really deserving of your opprobrium here. Let’s give credit where credit is due, and save the withering critiques for the real lefty drivel. After all, she’s a liberal–how else will she learn!

  2. I am sick of hearing your politics, this isn’t the first time you have expressed your opinion on something other than business (I generally try to ignore). I subscribe to IBR for business information, if I want left wing politics I’d waste my money and purchase the Statesman. You must not understand business and capitalism, they don’t care about gender or the color of skin, but whether or not an individual can/will do the job (you apparently can’t) and make a dollar for the company. If the paper is not going to focus on business and the health of capitalism, please return the balance of my 2013 subscription.