No question, you still don’t see a lot of women sitting around boardroom tables. To date, women make up less than a fifth (19.9%) of board seats at S&P 500 companies. Some 24 Fortune 500 companies have yet to name even one. But the case for appointing female directors is gaining traction, mostly because incentives have morphed from kumbaya optics to dollars and sense. Slowly, times are changing.
Study after study has lately shown that company profits rise significantly when women join a board (or become senior decision makers). New research also finds that women often improve the bottom line by bringing critical skills to the board that male counterparts typically lack, including human resources, corporate governance, sustainability, compliance and risk management.
“There’s now a compelling argument to add women when you look into the data,” says Olga V. Mack, general counsel for technology sales platform ClearSlide and the founder of Women Serve on Boards, which advocates for women directors in the Bay Area. Other activist networks also are springing up to spread the word. Regional organizations such as New York’s Women in the Boardroom or The Chicago Network in the Midwest as well as international campaigns like the 30% Club recruit and sometimes coach qualified women, educate companies and, literally and metaphorically, introduce top-level guys to the hundreds of women candidates now available.
Mack, who has served on several nonprofit and tech startup boards, believes the questions about women’s role are becoming outdated. “Instead of asking why we should include women,” she says, “we should be asking why women are excluded.”
The universe of board membership embraces wide-ranging options of size and type, from startups to multinationals and from private or public enterprises, for-profit or nonprofit organizations, private equity, legal or venture capital partnerships, family-owned businesses and lots more.
A good first step is to tap professional associations and networks and to check in with a local advocacy group, like those mentioned above. You’ll learn how best to apply, what opportunities are available and perhaps sign up for one of the growing number of board service courses or coaching options. You’ll also probably need to develop a board application elevator speech.
Next, think through the skills you can contribute, the time you’re prepared to offer and what sort of board matches your interests. Your goal should be a two-way street: You contribute knowhow, engagement and perhaps access to high-level contacts to help an organization prosper. In return, assess whether the board you choose can deliver what you want, such as:
– broadening networks;
– being paid a director’s fee (only at some for-profits);
– observing how other leaders work;
– honing new skills;
– raising industry profile; or
– getting involved in a field, company or cause that gets your juices going.
In addition, says Olga Mack, who speaks from first-baby experience, “serving on a nonprofit or professional association board while you’re on maternity leave can help you stay in touch with the community, add more balance to life with a newborn and give you some experience to help with re-entry.”
“Most people start their service on a nonprofit board for an organization about which they’re passionate,” says Sarah Ernst, law partner at Alston & Bird and president of Atlanta advocacy group OnBoard. “It allows them an opportunity to learn board dynamics and responsibilities and to expand their network.” Many nonprofits expect their volunteer directors to contribute annual donations and actively participate in fundraising, so check on that if it’s a deal-breaker for you.
When it comes to for-profit service, the big boards of major public companies, especially those with shareholders and compliance obligations, have become more sensitive to criticism and are making some efforts to close the gender gap. Even so, the vast majority of for-profit candidates are invited to serve because of their prior experience and existing relationships with directors (read: men). Women typically encounter that old Catch-22: They’re not invited because they lack high-level networks and board experience. And they lack relevant relationships and resumes because they aren’t appointed.
To gain that critical exposure, Martha Josephson, who leads the digital media practice at board search consultant Egon Zehner, suggests women starting out consider “smaller boards and boards of private companies, which offer great opportunities for building board experience and can act as a stepping stone to higher-profile boards.”
Managing the token issue
For the foreseeable future, women directors will remain a minority. Increasingly, though, boards will be actively recruiting to achieve improved gender equity. That offers unprecedented opportunities but also, perhaps, some emotional risk. How do you feel about applying to a board that has, say, only one or even no women members? Would being the only woman make you uncomfortable? Would the potential tension or additional scrutiny drain your energy or ability to fully participate? Or, does that even matter to you? These are decisions only you can make.
Advisors, of course, urge women to go for it! “Don’t limit your search to boards that already have women on them,” recommends Ursula Mead, founding CEO of InHerSight, an online rating platform for female-friendly workplaces. “That would make the pool of available options even smaller, and an argument can be made that you should actually target boards that clearly need gender diversity.”
Whatever you decide, mounting evidence now proves that having women in high-level board positions is simply smart business and critical to helping every kind of organization to weather change. There’s never been a more opportune time for you to gain the boardroom experience that can enrich your life and career.