Colorado is behind many other states in the number of women on corporate boards, and the U.S. as a whole has a long way to go to have the number of women on boards reflect the general population. But instead of frustration, a few experts on diversity in leadership are choosing to have an optimistic outlook about the opportunities for women. Numbers have doubled from barely a decade ago, so they’re looking at right now as a ripe moment for women to make opportunities to serve on boards.
“I think we just need to help women be more visible,” said Stefanie Johnson, an associate professor of management at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. She studies how unconscious bias affects the evaluation of leaders and strategies for mitigating bias. “There’s a reason to say, ‘Women, the time is now.’”
Johnson and other speakers plan to send that message at a Feb. 6 Association of Corporate Counsel event called “Women on Boards: Elevating Our Presence.”
According to data from Spencer Stuart’s 2019 Board Index report, women made up 46% of board members at S&P 500 companies last year. That’s up from 30% in 2014 and 17% in 2009. While it’s not possible to pinpoint definitive causes of the increases, Johnson said recent upswells in movements such as the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement have brought visibility to biases women face in the professional realm and helped erase lingering skepticism that they still exist.
“If I asked someone today if there’s gender bias in the workplace, you’d have to be pretty bold to say, ‘I don’t think so,’” Johnson said. “When you look at the statistics of how many women experience sexual harassment alone, how can you possibly imagine that men and women are treated equally?”
Johnson said there’s also more awareness surrounding the economic benefits of having women on boards, such as boosting innovation, benefitting companies’ stock value and increasing diversity in other areas of the company. She said she believes the coupling of economic benefits with the increased awareness of discrimination women face have contributed to increased efforts to get women on boards.
In addition to advocacy efforts to increase the number of women, she said, it’s important for women to speak up about their own desire to sit on boards.
“It’s kind of a scary thing to commit to your goals vocally, but if you want people to know you’re there, that’s a first easy step.”
Jo Lynne Whiting, who chairs Boardbound by Women’s Leadership Foundation, a board readiness initiative, said executive positions are a key pipeline to board appointments. She will also speak at the ACC’s event, and she said a key message for attendees to think about is using their legal career to help start a board career.
Women working toward corporate board positions may reframe their leadership experience to show how it has prepared them. Board members have to think about their company’s overall direction and success, she said, and so women with executive leadership experience may reframe their roles from just their area of expertise to show how they have had a role in their company’s overall direction.
“You generally are looking beyond your functional expertise to the overall responsibilities of the business” in a board position, Whiting said.
She said increasing the number of women on boards requires company leaders to broaden their thinking about who makes a good candidate. Whiting pointed to a Colorado mining company, Newmont, which has a board member who has a background in autonomous vehicles. The board recognized her experience was relevant because of her knowledge as of engineering and renewable energy.
Boardbound studies the number of women on boards in Colorado. In June 2019, according to public company proxy records, 16% of board members were women. That figure was 7% in 2011 when Boardbound did its first study, Whiting said.
A board career may have particular relevance for lawyers. Whiting said about 25% of corporate board members who have sat on boards for fewer than five years have legal backgrounds, suggesting it’s emphasized more as a skill for board members than in the past. She said in part, companies have increased awareness of the need to manage risks to their reputations.
There doesn’t seem to be as much data about women board members and intersectionality, such as women of color or who are LGBTQ. Johnson said she hasn’t focused on intersectionality in her studies of bias in leadership.
“That’s a little harder to get at, because it’s just not as common,” Johnson said. “I think it’s the next frontier, though.”
Whiting said she has seen data suggesting that the number of black and Asian women on boards would need to more than double to reflect the general population, and representation of Latina women would need to increase more than tenfold.
“There is progress made, but we have a long way to go.”