January 26th, 2012 | 6:00 am

Must Women Pry the Boardroom Door Open?

filed under Industry Leaders

Business reviewBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

In a ForbesWoman article earlier this month, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation (formerly Center for Work-Life Policy), wrote that while there are 144 boards with no women in the Fortune 1000 and women make up only 15 percent of all Fortune 1000 directors, there is also some good news when it comes to the effort to achieve board parity.

The good news, Hewlett says, is that over 1,100 directors on Fortune 1000 boards are over 70 years old.

If we only wait just a bit longer, she suggests, soon qualified women can rush into the seats vacated by retiring males. She concludes:

“The time may finally be arriving for women to fulfill B.C. Forbes’ predication. As more women pry open the boardroom door and assume a seat at the table, they can not only serve as a powerful voice for change within each company but can proactively broaden the pipeline of female candidates to ensure that even more women advance.”

Hewlett’s message about being rigorously prepared to assume board service when elected is valuable. But her suggestion that women simply wait their turn to be chosen for board service when the old guys are out of the way is disappointing. Women have been waiting for decades to get to the top, and – as Catalyst data on the percentage of women making it into the boardroom shows – playing the waiting game isn’t getting women anywhere fast.

Need to Pry?

Equally disappointing is the notion that women will still have to “pry” the boardroom door open when all of these seats are presumably up for grabs. If a board is so stubbornly ignoring the value of gender diverse viewpoints that women have to force their way onto it, that seat is not likely to be a pleasant one to occupy.

As Former Xerox CEO and Chairman Anne Mulcahy commented at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit last year, if a board has never had a female member, there are likely other problems within its culture or system of operating. In fact, she advised women not to join boards that don’t have other women. She said, “It’s a bad sign. Boards without women – blacklist those suckers. It’s 2011. They’ve had the time – it’s significant that they don’t have women.”

While encouraging women to empower themselves and prepare for board service in a systematic way is obviously important, it’s only part of the gender parity puzzle.

All of this preparation is going to amount to nothing if boards do not fully appreciate the need to hire women or other minority individuals. And judging by the numbers – and Hewlett’s notion that doors will have to be pried open – many boardrooms do not foster a culture that recognizes the value of diverse viewpoints. The real question we should be asking ourselves is how to emphasize the business case in a way that compels meaningful, thought- and action-provoking change in these arenas.

As Elissa Ellis Sangster, Executive Director of the Forte Foundation recently told the Wall Street Journal:

“[Based on research,] the organizations that have a higher representation of women in their leadership make better decisions, they have better corporate governance, they have better risk management, they have better returns. Having that diversity in an organization, whether it’s gender or ethnicity or background skills, those are all important things.”

The willingness of a board to consider the business value of gender diversity also signifies the willingness to consider and rethink long-held and potentially outmoded ways of leading a company. At a time of global uncertainty and upheaval in the corporate and financial space, a board that is willing to rethink tired ideas is one that is positioned for success.

3 comments

  1. S

    I was a consultant for a company that was bringing in a whole new board of directors as part of a major restructuring. While there were a few female for the position, the decision-makers (lenders/investors of the company) were all male (except for a female lending agent who delegated most of the interviewing process to her male subordinates). Typically, interviewers gravitate towards candidates who remind them of themselves, so without females participating in the process (or being a significant minority in the process), the choosing is very skewed towards choosing more male board members and keeping the status quo. In fact, the board of directors for this company did end up being 100% men (despite having had several female board members prior to the restructuring). This was not due to sexism, but much more subtle factors. Just another thing to keep in mind about choosing boardmembers–the makeup of the decisionmakers is often reflected in the makeup of the board.

  2. curtrice

    I think you’re right on target when you suggest that waiting is not the right strategy. In the context of my own work on gender diversity in higher education, one of the arguments is that with the greater number of women undergraduates, it’s only a matter of time until we have more women professors. There is actually research demonstrating that this — at best — requires a very long wait indeed. A few more comments along these line are in my “A slow thaw for women” http://bit.ly/slowTHAW
    (I use “thaw” as an acronym for “time heals all wounds” … which, alas, seems to be untrue.)

  3. Cindy Burrell

    I agree–forget about waiting and get in the “Board Game”! My company creates ADVISORY Boards for companies. If YOU refer me to a CEO and he/she works with me to create an Advisory Board, YOU could be the Advisory Board Facilitator–or an Advisory Board Member–depending on your skills and expertise. It’s all about relationships. So take action NOW and assist my company in creating more diverse boards!
    Cindy Burrell
    President, Diversity in Boardrooms
    847-807-5334