December 16, 2013 — As a millennial working to achieve diversity on corporate boards, I often have to explain to my peers not just what my job is, exactly, but also why it exists. Most twenty-somethings don’t fully understand the corporate structure where they work, let alone know what percentage of US board seats are held by women (in case you’re wondering, it’s 16.9%). Those who do are often so buried in the tedious work that comes with being junior employees that they lack the time and bandwidth to think about the issue of boardroom diversity and how it affects them.
But it does affect them. I’ve watched my female friends graduate from top universities with lofty ambitions for their futures, only to see them downsize those ambitions in a few short years. Statements like, “Well, I can’t stay in this industry, there’s only one woman at my firm,” are often followed by nods of agreement and remarks like, “Yeah, I don’t want to be a CEO anymore, either.”
Yet my male friends who ended up in the same firms and industries as their female peers—and aren’t any brighter or better-educated—don’t make these kinds of comments. Their ambition is unstinted, and they are buoyed by the certainty that there are no limits to how high they can climb.
Why do men at the beginning of their careers feel empowered, while women suddenly start questioning their own ambitions and ability to achieve them? The difference is leadership. The difference is company culture. The difference is women in the boardroom.
From the average employee’s perspective, a board’s primary function is to hire and fire CEOs. Boards are powerful entities—and when more women serve on them, more employees will dream big.
While most young women employees never meet their company’s board of directors, they hear those board members’ names and see them getting into the elevator. They know that the board is the only body to which their mostly male senior leaders are directly accountable. And when they see a woman getting into the elevator with the rest of the board, they think, “Maybe I can get there too.”
Fewer than 5% of F500 CEOs are women. We’re much closer to achieving parity in the boardroom than we are to achieving parity in the C-suite—and more women on boards will help yield more women CEOs. There are plenty of qualified women out there. They are ready to serve, and they are ready to inspire a younger generation of women to reach for the stars—or at least a seat at the boardroom table.