Public-company boardrooms are the last official stronghold of the old boys’ club. The number of women directors of public companies has climbed in recent years, but at the moment only 19 percent of S&P 500 corporate board members are women, according to Catalyst. With just about 50 percent of the workforce being women, this is a wide gap to cross.
Despite being a perennial of coverage in business magazines and newspapers, the topic of women on boards is a dependable yawn. Why is that, when the cost of the inequality is so great? It is an established principle in science that diverse teams yield better answers to complex problems. And Catalyst research shows companies with three or more female board members outperformed companies with non-diverse boards. Everyone agrees the situation is unjust but the conversation doesn’t seem to stick.
The truth is, most people don’t care. It’s not just men. Despite believing they SHOULD care, most women don’t. Most women executives don’t even care—until they are passed over for a cushy board appointment. The pace of change is glacial.
One problem: Men don’t budge once they get onto a board. Without specified term limits (generally, there are none), why would they? The pay and perks are sublime. There is no motivation to leave what is often a lifetime appointment.
“If you want to make room, existing board members have to be willing to rotate off. White men have a hard time letting go,” said one female executive I interviewed who requested to remain anonymous.
And let’s be honest, the boardroom of many public companies is the one place where women won’t—can’t—intrude. For a certain type of male executive, the absence of a female voice is priceless. Not that they will say as much on the record. (I’ve asked.)
The Securities and Exchange Commission is now considering mandating public companies disclose whether and, if so, how board diversity is taken into account when nominating director candidates. Several countries, including Germany and Norway, have gone further, addressing the inequity by mandating quotas. Observers debate the merits of trying that approach in the United States. It would get the numbers up, at least. But it seems like a non-starter. High-powered female executives I have interviewed say they don’t relish the idea of being the token woman whose opinions are overlooked at decision time.
A big-name Boston lawyer, a veteran of many nonprofit boards, says she would rather see incentives than mandates. “That’s the dilemma. You can get on a board, but be marginalized. Who wants that?”
The fact is, everyone should care about the lack of women on public-company boards. It’s a matter of human rights. These numbers are stark evidence of sexism. And the invisible barriers at the pinnacle of corporate America hurt real women.
Now 60, the Boston lawyer has finally taken up golf. Not playing golf has cemented her outsider status to men for years, she says. “You’re standing at the elevator on Friday night and you’re realizing that every other partner who is male is golfing together over the weekend.” It’s the little things, she says, that create a sense of “otherness,” leading men to pass over female board candidates.
Beyond getting out on the links, common tips for women interested in joining a public-company board include being visible both inside organizations and within industry groups. Learn to speak out without apology and don’t accept being marginalized.
For more information and to help increase the number of women on public-company boards, visit 2020wob.com.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user The_Warfield licensed under Creative Commons 2.0