Women in the Boardroom are on the Rise
For the first time in its 110-year history, General Motors has more women on its board than men.
That’s a significant event because men typically have dominated corporate boardrooms across America. The emergence of women on corporate boards represents a rising trend.
According to Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity, women held 22.5% of Fortune 500 board seats in 2018.
Last year, however, 40% of newly appointed Fortune 500 board members were women, according to a report from executive search firm Heidricks & Struggles. That percentage has more than doubled in the past decade.
Sheila Ronning, founder and CEO of Women in the Boardroom, says women are making greater strides than evidenced by the Fortune 500 numbers.
“The media tends to focus on Fortune 500 companies, and those figures can look rather dismal,” she says. “Women are more heavily represented on the boards of smaller companies. The Fortune 500 numbers, particularly over the past decade, however, are very encouraging.”
In 2002, Ronning founded Women in the Boardroom with a revolutionary vision to create an environment where women could assist other women in achieving their leadership and corporate board-service goals.
Every public company is required to have a board of directors, whose members are elected to represent the shareholders. A board’s mandate is to establish policies for corporate management and oversight, making decisions on major company issues.
Corporate board members are paid. Nonprofit board members are volunteers. According to the Boston Globe, the median pay in 2014 for a board seat at a micro-cap company (one with less than $500 million in revenue) was $105,000. Pay increases with company size.
A trailblazer in working toward gender equality in the boardroom, Ronning says gender diversity is important.
“First and foremost, skill set, not gender or race, should be the major qualification for a board member,” she says. “Additionally, boards should look like their customers.”
Boards with three or more women tend to result in enhanced dialogue, better decision making, more effective risk mitigation and crisis management, and other positive outcomes, according to a Norwegian study.
Ronning works with women to equip them with the exceptional tools, knowledge, and confidence to become board members.
She says senior-level executives who make final decisions in strategy and investments, oversee a significant budget, or are in charge of a large group of people make excellent board members.
Because companies are seeking expanded skill sets from board members, there are more opportunities for women.
“There’s a tremendous need for diverse, current skills, such as cybersecurity, social media, human resources, talent management, sales, and marketing. All are important and in demand,” comments Ronning. “This has changed dramatically over the past five years, especially within the last two years.”
Ronning says obtaining a board position is a process, and it’s never too early for influential female executives to start. She stresses there is no easy road to the boardroom. Aspiring board members should be willing to dedicate at least five hours a month to the process.
She encourages aspiring board members to raise their game with strategic marketing, board documents that showcase their skills and profile, and getting up to date on key issues concerning corporate governance. They also should know what boards they are qualified for and prepare for a possible board interview.
The process requires preparation, organization, and persistence, emphasizes Ronning. Preparation means doing your homework — developing your brand, being able to articulate the value you would add to a board, and practicing board-interview questions.
You need to be organized to keep the process moving and to make the best use of your time. Persistence is paramount since the process could take from three to five years. Aspiring board members need to be dedicated and committed for the long haul.
“You can achieve your goals with the right guidance,” says Ronning, who has built an impressive track record in connecting female executives with the people and the tools they need to succeed in the boardroom. “You need to stay focused and motivated.”
Another key in the journey to the boardroom is networking. Although every executive is familiar with networking, Ronning says women network differently from men, and sometimes that works against them.
“Women often don’t like to ask for help,” she says. “Women tend to use networking to ask for permission or advice rather than finding the right board job. Networking is more than just meeting people.
“Our process helps women figure out who the key people are in their network that they should reach out to, how to contact their network, what to say and what not to say, and how to maintain those relationships.”
The personal and professional rewards of serving on a corporate board are plentiful, according to Ronning.
“You receive the satisfaction of helping corporate leadership provide better performance for their shareholders,” she says. “It also is a great way of expanding the reach of your corporate skills and building your reputation.”
Board membership is intellectually challenging, a source of growth and learning, and a fulfilling endeavor. It also can be a rewarding second career.
“The future for women in the boardroom is very bright,” offers Ronning. “Unfortunately, women hold themselves back, and some women want to hold other women back. Women need to learn their value and what they are able to bring to the boardroom. It’s a matter of packaging yourself.”