How Women CEOs Can Get More Seats on Boards

Ask the Experts

Today fewer than 20 percent of the approximate S&P board seats are currently held by women. At the same time, the Nielsen Company is reporting that almost all income growth in the United States in the past 15 years is generated by women exercising their growing economic influence. If women control about $20 trillion in annual consumer spending, shouldn’t we do more to have women in executive level positions and on corporate boards? To address the needs of the female consumer, we need to diversify corporate boards and have more women sitting at the table.

Here are some ways we can work to get more women in board of director roles:

Challenge the old model of thinking. Male board members turn to their own networks when filling seats on a board and oftentimes those networks consist of C-suite men. Even when men want to diversify their boards with women, the norm can rule the day if the men at the top don’t have any women executives in their network. Male executives can change this dynamic by proactively looking to hire women, promote women and connect with more women in professional settings. If you want to empower women, look for ways to do so.

CEOs need to lead the charge. Design a workplace where potential leaders can be identified, given highly visible jobs and receive the right opportunities and training to prepare them to take their leadership skills to the next level. CEOs are in the role that can create change for more women to contribute at the top.

Assess how you recruit and develop women leaders. Does your company have any disparity in how you recruit and develop men versus women? Take an honest look. How many women executives does you company have? Analyze your hiring practices, your equity of pay and any leadership development or mentoring programs your company offers. If you find any inequalities in the way you hire, train and grow male executives versus female, assess and make changes accordingly.

Be bold. Consider reaching out to current and former employees for a survey to get their input on whether they think there are perceived differences in the ways men and women are recruited and developed. Use their feedback to make your company more desirable for women.

Hiring women leaders attracts more women leaders. When women have highly visible C-level positions, this automatically attracts other women leaders. Women will see your business as diverse and a highly regarded workplace.

Offer flexible work arrangements. Work life balance is often cited as one of the obstacles preventing women from advancing in the workplace. Address work life balance head on in order to recruit and retain women executives. Consider offering flexible work arrangements such as flexible hours or working from home, on-site daycare or job sharing. Companies can also work to create a corporate culture where flexible work arrangements have a forward-thinking perception and not a negative stigma.

Appoint women. Be an executive sponsor. Sponsor a C-level woman for a position on your board. Target your networking focus to women already on boards or women leaders in networking groups and mastermind forums. Most new board of directors come from other board members’ recommendations, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. If you have the ability to sponsor a woman executive for a board position, you can help affect lasting change.

Identify current female leaders in your company and invest in their future. If you have standout women leaders at your company who aren’t yet ready for executive level roles, invest in their leadership development. While this won’t immediately address the issue of getting more women on boards, it will help shift getting more women into the C-level pool for future board selection.

Go for diverse specialties and perspectives. Board positions today want more specialized experience than ever before. The most effective boards are comprised of people with varied skillsets.

Studies prove that board room diversity is good for a company’s bottom line. Having women leaders sit on boards is just good for business.

Mary Key, Ph.D. is a leadership development expert, an executive coach and trusted advisor to organizations of all sizes. With more than 25 years of experience in helping leaders and companies grow, she heads Key Associates, which specializes in CEO and C-Suite peer forums including an innovative program for executive women, the Key Women’s Leadership Forum.

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