Breaking the cycle of boardroom bias

Bonnie W Gwin on Boardroom Diversity

Women who step off the executive career path are well placed to shine on the board, writes Bonnie W. Gwin

More diversity in the boardroom should be a competitive advantage in tough economic times. But both in Britain and the US increased regulatory reform and detailed scrutiny have led to rising numbers of chief executives and chief financial officers who are typically white men with an average age of 57.

Given the uncertainty, boards are seeking traditional operating experience from roles where women are few and far between. As a result, the percentage of women on US boards in the Fortune 500 hovers around 16 per cent while in the UK women occupy 16.7 per cent of FTSE-100 boardroom places.

The Davies report called last year for UK companies to ensure that half of boardroom places went to women by 2015. The demand has been watched with interest in the US but despite the report – and the introduction of quotas in France and Norway – there is little talk of similar action in America. But the debate around quotas and the global focus on boardroom variety has moved many US companies to boost diversity on boards.

To help broaden the talent pipeline to yield more female candidates, companies should consider women who have shunned the typical executive path to become entrepreneurs and consultants or pursued less traditional careers.

Their experience can be excellent in the boardroom but may not be an obvious fit at first glance. There is also a real opportunity for women globally to leverage their international experience – especially in emerging markets. Here’s a snapshot of what US companies seek in a board member:

• International experience – Asia is of key interest to US organisations

• Market leader experience, particularly alongside senior operating knowledge gained in China, India and Brazil.

• Exposure to digital/social media.

• Courage and good judgement.

• Ability to chair an audit or remuneration committee originating in a financial or HR background.

• Experience of operational leadership in IPOs.

There is much success among women who can articulate what they’re able to bring to a board role. People who work on developing their personal brand will always stand out.

Non-profit roles offer a way to build knowledge. Significant not-for-profit or advisory board experience is a good proxy for a main board and will help candidates gain a foot on the ladder. Finally, try networking at conferences and events in the US and Europe via organisations such as WomenCorporateDirectors. There’s no substitute for good old-fashioned communication. Don’t be shy about sharing goals. You’ll be surprised by how much help people will offer if they understand clearly what they can do for you.

Bonnie W GwinBonnie W. Gwin is vice chairman and co-managing partner, North America, for the board of directors/CEO succession practice of Heidrick & Struggles

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