Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.
What is keeping women off corporate boards? It's not a lack of attention
to the problem: A top board search consultant characterizes the push for
board diversification in the following way: "opportunities are abounding
for women ... no one ever says, 'bring me a white male.'" Business magazines
and newspapers follow the progress of top women in business onto boards:
Sallie L. Krawcheck's first board position (Dell) merits an article in the
New York Times business section. Business schools design educational
programs specifically to help women attain corporate board positions.
This makes the continued rarity of women directors all the more puzzling
and raises the important question of how to get more women on corporate
boards. This article shares six tips from women board members,
knowledgeable search consultants, and other savvy insiders, on successful
strategies for board selection with women (and men!) who aspire to follow
in their footsteps.
From September 2005 through January of 2006, the author conducted
interviews with a non-representative sample of 40 women executives and one
man covering a variety of career and board issues. The sample included
women from all over the country including several prominent board search
consultants, corporate and non-profit executives, a university president,
the president of a research institute that studies gender differences in
leadership, and women executives from a broad array of industries and
Over half the participants (56%) are or were CEOs or Presidents. The same
percentage (56%) came from companies in the health care sector. The
remainder came from a variety of industries, including financial services,
investment banking, private equity and venture capital, law, universities
and research institutes, oil and gas, and transportation. 10% of the
sample was comprised of board or search consultants. 78% of the sample has
corporate board experience; 93% has not-for-profit board experience, and
76% serve on both corporate and not-for-profit boards.
The top six tips for women who aspire to corporate boards are:
Tip #1: Create a plan to manage your career.
A big career, including one with corporate board service, requires a
"single-mindedness" of purpose; a plan is essential to put this focus into
action. One executive astutely summarized the problem in this way: "Women
let their careers happen to them." Big careers don't just happen. They
require intention and strategy, from determining long-term and short-term
goals, needed skills and experiences, wise career moves, and the possible
role of board service.
Women executives are particularly vulnerable to the competing demands of
big jobs and family responsibilities and often don't or can't devote the
time to manage their careers.
A career plan is essential to keep the focus on intentional career moves
that enhance career strength and board credentials.
Tip #2: Seek opportunities to run anything.
Above all, boards want women (and men) who have already run an operation
and have P&L experience, preferably C-suite experience. An SVP or EVP is
generally the minimum desired profile, "unless you know people."
The problem is that most women executives don't have this kind of
experience. A disproportionate number of women executives are in staff,
not line, positions which provide no P&L experience. Many others are in
not-for-profits, government, or academia, or other settings where P&L
experience is not relevant.
That's why a career plan with a focus on actively seeking opportunities to
run something - a business unit, division, even an interdepartmental task
force or project or volunteer organization -- can be a springboard to
larger operating roles and to serious board consideration. Do not wait for
a hoped-for operating assignment to materialize; find one.
Tip #3: Build specialized expertise in a function, industry, or body of
One woman executive noted that if you aren't a CEO, you need valuable
functional or industry expertise. Since few women board candidates are
CEOs, they need: (1) specialized expertise such as financial, legal,
marketing, strategy, IT - providing a unique and needed experience and
perspective for a particular board; (2) reputation as an expert in a field
(functional, industry, body of knowledge - boards want expertise not just
experience), and (3) visible leadership and excellence in an industry and
organization (boards want stars not average performers).
Tip #4: Build financial knowledge and skills.
Financial skills and knowledge have always been of critical importance to
board selection "because that's what board decisions come down to," but a
strong financial background is "more important than ever" in this post
Sarbanes-Oxley era, as is compliance awareness. At a minimum, a woman
needs to know how to read financials and understand financial management
for serious board contention. Courses in financial management are
available for those with serious board aspirations.
Tip #5: Build a strong network.
A strong professional network is the number one requirement for women
seeking a corporate board seat. Virtually every woman in the study got
board positions through her network, especially the first and most
difficult to secure board seat. As one participant noted, "Networking is
more important than skills." Women executives reported that they obtained
board positions through their contacts with colleagues, bosses, and
clients. The most dramatic example was the woman executive with no prior
board experience who got four board offers in four calls to her investment
The first important role of a network is providing visibility and entrée
for women board candidates. As one female CEO put it, "It's really about
an entrée and then about qualifications. Many women have the
qualifications, but they don't have the contacts, and haven't aggressively
pursued their networks to be visible to boards." Another echoed this
point, saying "If people don't know you, no matter how good you are, you
are put at a disadvantage" when it comes to board selection. And a third
pointed out that "Women lack the contacts for the introduction, they don't
lack the skill set."
A second role of a network is to provide valuable information on a
candidate's people skills and work style. One CEO explained, "People find
it hard to get rid of board members so they need to know you have the
skills and are good to work with." If a candidate is introduced by a board
member, she has already passed the chemistry screen and the board may be
more willing to relax the other qualifications. This is a crucial
advantage for women who make lack the full complement of paper
Tip #6: Build board qualifications and network through other board service
and relationships with board search firms.
A Fortune 500 board was not the first board experience for the vast
majority of women. Many of them gained valuable board experience on
not-for-profit, startup, and smaller corporate boards. Women served on
these boards to build board skills, credibility, and even contacts. Some
women executives reported that major not-for-profits, such as educational
institutions and museums, were especially effective as a springboard to
corporate boards, because their board members often also sit on corporate
A leading board consultant also recommended aiming for the Fortune 2000
for the first corporate board seat as another stepping stone to large
Another recommended strategy was to build relationships with search firms
who do board searches, let them know of your interest, ask them to assess
your board viability and give you advice, and help them with searches in
return. Over the long term, this mutual relationship may open up another
important source of board opportunities.
A simple career plan can focus on developing the operating experience and
network needed to be visible and qualified for board consideration.
Specialized industry or functional expertise, and a reputation for
excellence and leadership in her field, as well as a strong financial
background are also essential for serious board consideration. And
building a strong professional network is paramount for entrée and
advocacy for a woman's work quality and work style, important criteria
that can overcome the lack of other ideal qualifications. Major
not-for-profit, small corporate, and startup boards are major sources of
experience and contacts necessary for serious consideration by larger
corporate boards. Employing these tips from women who have achieved what
few do is a road map for success. Get on board!