July 17, 2013 — While waiting to be interviewed for a board director position, a senior executive woman at a Fortune 100 company overhears the Board Chair ask the recruiter, “Why are we interviewing her?”
Is the Board Chair’s reaction surprising? Perhaps not. Despite all the lip service being paid to women’s representation on corporate boards, women are still unusual suspects when it comes to being recruited for board service. Indeed, between 2009 and 2011, women occupied fewer than one in five seats on Fortune 500 and FP 500 boards.
This lack of progress in adding women to corporate boards is out of step with the new reality, which is that gender diversity in the boardroom is increasingly seen as a reflection of good governance. Formal and informal approaches to increasing women’s representation are being refined around the globe. The question for companies shouldn’t be, “Why add a woman to our board?” but rather, “Why not add a woman?”
Catalyst has been asking “why not” for some time. Why not have more women in senior executive roles? Why not choose a woman for that hot job? Catalyst has invested in women and business for the past five decades, largely through our ground-breaking research and initiatives, and now we’ve made another investment. As of today, Catalyst has acquired Women On Board® Canada, a highly successful board mentoring program that promotes the appointment of women to corporate boards. Women On Board®’s mentoring program matches board-ready senior executive women with corporate board members, and it’s remarkably successful: 32 percent of Women On Board® alumnae have been appointed to for-profit boards.
Our investment in this program further demonstrates Catalyst’s commitment to making change in the boardroom. Women On Board® joins an array of board- and governance-related initiatives Catalyst offers to identify challenges and solutions related to women’s advancement in the boardroom. The endowed Catalyst Research Center for Equity in Business Leadership tracks and identifies challenges, and our Corporate Board Services group houses a number of initiatives designed to meet those challenges.
What happened to the woman interviewing for that board director position? After a rigorous selection process, she was invited to join the board. Her experience represents a new recognition that plenty of talented executive women are already out there—but their talents can only be discovered and tapped into once they have been identified as “board-ready.” The women are there; it’s up to companies to use the many resources available to find them.
The “new normal” in today’s boardroom is the expectation that companies will make a good-faith effort to recruit talented women and minority candidates who can bring fresh perspectives to the table. We’ve moved beyond asking whether companies should invest in women to having serious conversations about how best to do this. Companies face the choice of whether to lead or lag on this issue. And Catalyst is well positioned to help those that are ready to lead.