Few women sit on public companies' boards

Few women sit on public companies' boards

In the U.S., business leaders seem to favor a market-based approach. “I think quotas are crazy,” says Johansen, reiterating the importance of getting more women into executive positions. Instead of mandating percentages, agrees Fowler, companies should provide board diversity training and publicly disclose the number of women in management and the boardroom. “That can move us to where we want to be,” she says.

In September, the National Association of Corporate Directors hosted a meeting in New York titled “Move the Needle: Diversity and Women in the Boardroom as a Strategic Business Imperative” that was organized around just those themes. Featuring 100 top corporate leaders, the meeting focused on increased networking and education for women interested in board positions, corporate diversity disclosures and greater board turnover.

Increasing female board participation may also require boards to consider candidates outside traditional industry sectors, says John Becker-Blease, an Oregon State University business professor. “I would argue for an inclusive view of board composition, to bring fresh revolutionary ideas to companies,” he says. Some corporations are leading the way. Between 1998-2008, the CEO of Texas Instruments crafted and implemented a plan to make female directors 40% of the board.

Since women now comprise 60% of the MBA student population, change may occur more organically at the other end of the corporate ladder, says Lee Koehn, a corporate recruiter in Lake Oswego. Growing attention to a board’s fiduciary responsibilities is also “leading the market away from a good ol’ boys network” and toward candidates with established competencies and experience, Koehn says.

But whether demographics, corporate initiatives and heightened scrutiny of company operations will be enough to counter prevailing forces remains to be seen. And until change does occur, Oregon’s business leaders must contend with the fact that only 11.5% of Oregon’s publicly traded corporate board positions are held by women.

Maybe there’s an upside, says former governor Roberts, noting the situation can be good fodder for public speaking. “When I would give talks to women’s organizations about our successes and failures,” she says, “I would make a joke: ‘I don’t even want to talk about corporate boards.’ You can always use that for a laugh.”

Linda Baker is the managing editor of Oregon Business. Contact her at lindab(at)oregonbusiness.com.