Business Forward
Organizations need to purposefully pursue women for board positions, including having current board members mentor women who are interested in serving on boards.

CEO Alert: Better Boards for Better Outcomes

Dec. 21, 2016
When women are at the table, organizations almost always experience more success: better ideas surface, more viable policy alternatives are created, the quality of the discussion is heightened, and financial returns are stronger.

Regardless of whether or not you supported Hilary Clinton, her run as the first presidential candidate of a major party was a phenomenal accomplishment when, less than 100 years ago, women couldn’t even vote. So far, President-elect Trump has named four women to major federal posts (as of this writing—Elaine Chao as Secretary of Transportation, Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, Nikki Haley as U.S. Ambassador to the UN and Seema Verma as Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services). Corporate leaders take note.

Women make up the majority of the population in the United States, and just under half the workforce. Yet their representation on corporate boards remains pathetically low. According to Catalyst, fewer than 24% of boards of directors in the U.S. include women.  While that number has steadily increased over the last decade, it still falls woefully short.

In Norway, women hold more than 40% of board seats.  The difference is that Norwegian law requires it. Before you argue that quotas result in unqualified persons – men and women – being hired, in Norway the opposite is true. In fact, the quota has been a boon to organizations there. None of the women serving on a board is less qualified than their male counterparts, and many are more qualified. While a quota may not work in the United States, the lesson to take away is that there are plenty of qualified women to serve on boards, despite arguments to the contrary.

My career working with leaders in industry and the armed services has given me a unique opportunity to help advance opportunities for women, as well as minorities. There are several lessons I learned – from both male and female leaders – that can be applied to improving the placement of women on boards.  If you think about it, why wouldn’t you want your board more representative of the population at large (i.e., your customer base)?

The reality among too many people is that a woman’s primary goal in life is raising a family—everything else is secondary. As the actress Jennifer Aniston recently said, “We’re seeing women through that very narrow lens.  If we don’t have a baby or a white picket fence or a husband, then we’re useless. We’re not living up to our purpose. It’s shocking to me that we are not changing the conversation.”

Aniston is correct: the conversation needs to change, and quickly.

Besides the obvious observation that women should be proportionately represented on boards, women are often more conciliatory and less dogmatic than their male counterparts when it comes to decision making. They view compromise as a sign of confidence and strength—this strength is sorely lacking on many boards.

When women are at the table, organizations almost always experience more success: better ideas surface, more viable policy alternatives are created, the quality of the discussion is heightened, and financial returns are stronger. The reason isn’t necessarily because there are women on a board, as much as the board is no longer an “old boys club.”  It’s time for this boy’s club to include more girls.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, women often report that they don’t want to serve on boards because they don’t feel experienced enough.  Men, on the other hand, seem willing to serve whether they have the right experience or not. It’s time organizations, including boards of directors, understand that expertise and contributions—not your sex—is what matters. Here are five ideas organizations can implement to encourage women to serve on boards:

  1. Make the commitment to diversify your board.  It sounds obvious (and it is), but if you don’t acknowledge it, you can’t change it.
  2. Stop stereotyping.  Encourage woman to apply for board positions.  Don’t assume because a woman is also a parent, she isn’t interested in serving on a board.  Fathers are also parents, and I’ll bet that’s never an assumption. 
  3. Most boards still operate on the old model of leadership—command and control.  In my experience, women don’t need to take this approach because they know how to collaborate and cooperate.  If you look at how the most successful organizations operate today, it’s around a platform of co-creation and collaboration, not command and control.
  4. Most of the women I know and have worked with have been better at multitasking than men (myself included), and they reach consensus faster and with less contention than most men.  Historically, women have had to work harder and innovate more—important skills to have when serving on a board. 
  5. Women are often told they don’t have the right mix of experience to serve on a board (or, as stated above, they may feel this way themselves).  Corporate leaders need to acknowledge this fact, and encourage women to vary their experiences throughout the company so they have a variety of P&L experiences.

Organizations need to purposefully pursue women for board positions, including having current board members mentor women who are interested in serving on boards. Programs like Women on Board:  A Catalyst Initiative, encourages the mentorship and sponsorship of women for board positions. Women can serve on a local board as a way to determine if it’s even something they want to do.  You’d be surprised how much one can learn volunteering on a local United Way or Chamber of Commerce board. Having a mix of talent in your boardroom is always a good thing.  Offer programs and mentorships that encourage this.

Because women tend to be primary caregivers, organizations mistakenly assume that they may not want to serve on a board because of non-work commitments. While that is certainly true with some women (and even some men), it’s a lost opportunity to automatically discount a woman because of this.

A more diversified board simply makes good business sense. I know which kind of board I’d prefer to serve on.

Ritch K. Eich, Ph.D. (Michigan), author of three leadership books and Captain, U.S. Naval Reserve (ret), is a former vice president at three large U.S. hospitals and the former Chief of Public Affairs for Blue Shield of California. He has served on more than 10 for-profit and non-profit boards of directors.

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