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Few women sit on public companies' boards

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Articles - November 2011
Wednesday, October 19, 2011

By Linda Baker

Former PGE chief executive Peggy Fowler retired in 2008 and now serves on the boards of three public companies, including Hawaii Electric Industries.
// Photo by Matthew D'Annunzio

In the mid-1990s, former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts reached out to Nike and a few banks and insurance companies with the intention of landing a seat on a corporate board of directors. But the offers never came, says Roberts, whose resume included presiding over an economic expansion as governor, a background in small business, and a five-year teaching stint at Harvard. Around the country, male governors received an “automatic board solicitation when they finished their terms,” recalls Roberts. But at the time, she says, the same opportunities were not available to women. “We did not receive that outreach,” she says, “or the opportunity for additional income after leaving office.”

Fifteen years later, Roberts says the situation is changing for female governors. But the underlying problem of a male boardroom monoculture persists. In a survey of Oregon’s 46 publicly traded companies, Oregon Business found that women occupy only 39 of 340 existing board seats and that almost half of the 46 companies have no women on their boards at all.  And since several female directors are “duplicates” — that is, they serve on more than one board — the total number of women serving on Oregon’s public corporate boards is actually 35. Oregon Business did not gather data on privately held companies in Oregon because many private companies either do not have boards or will not reveal the names of board directors.

The dearth of women involved in corporate governance is a social equity issue — publicly traded companies compensate directors an average of $76,000 a year — and a business performance issue. An emerging body of global research suggests boards with female board members outperform those without female members across industry sectors. A 2007 analysis by Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to improving opportunities for women in business, found that Fortune 500 companies with higher numbers of female board members outperform those with fewer women based on several financial benchmarks. Measured by return on sales and return on equity, for example, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors experience better financial results than those with the least number of women. “The numbers are startling,” says Mary Boughton, senior regional director for Catalyst.



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