more conversations about the lack of women at the top

Looking southwest across Vanderbilt Avenue, fr...Image via Wikipedia

I went to an interesting lunch yesterday at the Yale Club.  Janet Hanson of 85 Broads invited me to attend.  She created a group called the Power Circle Luncheon.  She brings a topic, an author or something of interest once a month and invites people from the Power Circle to attend.  A great way to network and learn.  I met a bunch of smart women working in a variety of different fields.

After meeting and greeting we all sat down to hear Diana Taylor and Janice Reals Ellig discuss being on corporate boards and how there are so few women on them.  As I have said in the past, I hate the negativity.  I'd rather focus on the positive and how people are working to bring more women on corporate boards. Not sure that is the discussion that was had. 

Diana Taylor sits on a variety of high powered boards such at Citigroup which would make perfect sense considering she is the former New York State Superintendent of Banks.  She completely acknowledged that we need more women on corporate boards.  That she has personally ended up on most of the boards she serves on through networking vs being head hunted.  The issue is that many of the boards at this level want to have members at a certain level of their career and there are not a big pool of women to choose from. 

The other person on this small panel was Janice Reals Ellig who has been a senior-level corporate recruiter working with CEO's and Boards of Directors on organizational development and succession planning.   She made the point that if anyone in the room wants to sit on a corporate board, they need to start working on that goal now.  Start networking, thinking about which board makes sense etc.  Most of the women in the room already sit on not-for-profit boards and were pretty high powered financiers, lawyers, writers and entrepreneurs in the room.  Janice felt that corporations should start to think out of the box.  That is a point I completely agreed with.  Guaranteed there wasn't a person in the room that isn't qualified to sit on a board such as Citigroup but don't have the connections and status. 

I have sat on a variety of boards, mostly start-ups and a few not-for-profits.  In the start-up world, the board support changes as the company grows.  I can't stress how important it is for every start-up once they have funding to create a board.  The bi-laws might state that the board consists of 5 or 7 people but at the early stage you only begin with 3 and the board will grow over time.  Each member at that level provides a huge support system for an entrepreneur or CEO (although the two are generally the same at this point).  As the company grows and takes more funding, the board begins to change and they provide invaluable insight, direction and support.  Call me crazy but I don't think it is a reach to say that as the start-ups become multi-million dollars businesses that those boards probably do a lot more than a corporate board.  Getting to that level of a business is hard work and the decisions that are agonized and made to get there are not easy. 

The corporate board comes directly out of corporate America which is absolutely male driven.  Maybe over time that will change perhaps many of those companies won't be here in twenty years and companies where there is a better balance of women will take their place.  Who knows.  Maybe corporate boards, like they have done in some foreign countries, should be forced to have a certain percentage of the board as women.  Forcing corporate America to think out of the box. 

Certainly interesting to hear both Diana and Janice's perspective on women and boards.  Lots of conversation taking place.  Just of interest, Diana never had children of her own.  Janice has much older children. Just something to think about.  Diana, who is a very high-powered women and extraordinary, really cares about women's issues and sits on many well known corporate boards did not have to make the decisions that many women in corporate America have had to make.  Her career has mirrored many high power men because men never (I should say rarely) have the push/pull many women feel once children come into the equation.  Those decisions about children is one of the many reasons that the pool of women for corporate boards is so small. 

Perhaps it is about time that more corporate boards think a little bit out of the box and bring women on to these boards that are smart, capable and insightful that might not necessarily be at the top of the food chain but are at a level where more women reside because of the fact that having children is a bigger responsibility than sitting on a corporate board. 

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Comments (Archived):

  1. Mike Hart

    I would not favor any type of affirmative action in requiring women on boards. I think this is a process and in twenty years the corporate landscape will look much differently as you suggest. Board members typically have been CEOs or in high level operating positions along the line because that is where the value added experience is learned. Getting more women into those positions will lead to more women being invited on boards. I really don’t see children as an issue as it relates to boards because the time commitment is typically less so than that of an operating role and board appointments would come after early child rearing years.

    1. Gotham Gal

      I hope that the landscape changes. Time will tell. If shareholders putpressure on boards for more diversity that would make a difference too

    2. Tereza

      I don’t think that “thinking out of the box” necessarily means “affirmative action”, per se.But it’s important to the recognize that the inertia has actually not been in our favor. 20 years ago, looking ahead, I thought today would have seen more change than we have. So I wasn’t particularly interested in women’s business and board issues like this. I was positive that the tide was rising for us, in a natural way, so why intercede.Problem is, the numbers have actually not been changing much. Nor have the underlying factors that prevent us from attaining those high-level operating roles. So knowing what I do now, at age 40, I feel very differently about making a difference because based on what I see, unless we do something it won’t be any different for my daughters.There is great demand for the women who are at the top of the food chain. there’s a former (major) CEO I know. Since she left her last CEO job, turns out she’s on 15 boards. No longer bothers with an operating CEO job.There are not enough women with the creds you describe. But they’re not naturally getting there. And it’s not because of talent.The problem I’ve seen on the front line again and again is there is only a small number of women who do manage to stick around long enough to get the high-level operating positions, because the big executive jump happens during childbearing years. No amount of talent or hard work on behalf of the woman can change that.When we on-ramp again when the kids are a little older we are not tracked for those positions whatsoever but rather in back-office roles or “special projects”. These might be interesting but they never, ever run a P&L. So even though she’s back at work full-time and fully committed, she’d missed the starting gun for her executive tenure.The ones who do have the high-level operating creds because either chose not to have kids or somehow managed to keep their toe in the water are asked to be on a ton of boards, speak all the time. There is not enough of them to go around. They are exhausted, burning out.Then there’s Tina Fey’s great article just out in the New Yorker today — the general perception that a woman over 40 who has chutzpah is “crazy”. (Fey is more clever about it, saying– and pardon my french — the minute you’re not someone they’d like to fuck, you’re viewed as “that crazy lady”)I just don’t see this “supply side” situation changing, frankly, in my lifetime.Which is why I back Joanne in her suggestion that some out-of-the-box thinking is in order.I’ve seen terrible board members with blue-chip high-end operating role creds who are either destructive or phone it in (and of course also lots of great ones). My point is that top-of-food-chain creds and fantastic-board-member is not 100% correlated, while the absence of the viewpoint of 50+% of the population is a major, major gap.There are great, whip-smart, passionate women out there.

      1. Mwilkotz

        Loved the Tina Fey piece and think it applies to a lot more than show business!I live in Spain where there is (loose-ish) legaslation on women on Corporate Boards to take effect in 2014. We’ll see what happens because the corporate landscape here is even more complicated for women than in the US.Tereza, I think we’re from the same generation, and I too thought 20 years ago things would look really different by now. I can’t find the piece, but read not too long ago that the US will reach gender parity in the workplace in the year 4000 if current trends hold.Love the support for new ways of thinking about the issue!

        1. Gotham Gal

          the year 4000? woah.Tiny Fey piece was really great. Honest, funny and insightful.

        2. Tereza

          :-)Gender parity in 4000?!I need to get my hands on that.Hard to get motivated about a goal 1990 years out.

  2. VectorBloom

    Hey! Why aren’t there more Women in positions of power within the corporate and political landscape? ‘…might not necessarily be at the top of the food chain…’ this is a very revealing observation of the people who make up most corporate boards. There’s plenty of people, men and women alike who are not ‘at the top of the food chain’ who are smart, insightful and capable of contributing valuable insight and direction within the context of a corporate board. If corporate boards WANTED this kind of insight, to think beyond the bottom line, they WOULD absolutely invite women and they would invite people who don’t aggressively seek to be at the top of the food chain or even people who don’t seek to perpetuate a food chain based class structure. THEN something crazy might happen! We might witness more social and environmental stewardship not to mention corporate responsibility out of the decisions coming from these boards. Unfortunately this kind diversity might not be in the interest of the those other ‘types’ at the top of the food chain, the controlling shareholders of corporate america. Thanks for opening the discussion.

    1. Gotham Gal

      Nice comment Elizabeth. You are spot on.

  3. rebeccastees

    vote for women as a shareholder.this topic lead to an interesting discussion with both my parents this morning….. thank you, joanne

    1. Gotham Gal

      Excellent. Good to hear. What did u discuss?

  4. Peggy Dold

    Thank you for the post. Coincidentally, before I read this I had just finished viewing Madeleine Albright’s TED talk. Whether one likes her politics or not, she has done much to pave many roads for women worldwide. I hope this link works:

    1. Gotham Gal

      thanks Peggy. I am a huge fan.