Few women sit on public companies' boards

Few women sit on public companies' boards

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"I'd love to see more women pursue technical degrees," says Kirby Dyess, who serves on three corporate boards.
// Photo by Matthew D'Annunzio
Exactly how and why the presence of women on boards improves a company’s financial performance is difficult to pin down. The consensus seems to be that women bring a different perspective to the table, in part because of their status as outsiders, and that “the more types of thinking, the better decisions the board will make,” says Peggy Fowler, retired CEO of Portland General Electric and a director serving on the boards of PGE and Umpqua Holding Corp.

Companies also need more diverse boards for image purposes and to better understand the needs of an increasingly complex and diverse workforce and marketplace. “If you’re sitting on a board where the customer base or buyers are female, you’d have a very difficult time understanding your market with an all-male board,” says Kirby Dyess, principal of Austin Capital Management, a former Intel vice president and a member of PGE’s board of directors. She cited the utilities industry as an example of such a “diversified” sector.

Companies with a critical mass of female board members also tend to hire more female corporate officers than companies without women on the board. According to another Catalyst report, companies with at least 30% women board directors in 2001 had on average 45% more women corporate officers by 2006, compared to companies with no women board members. In both the financial performance and corporate officer reports, the key number of female directors appears to be three. “That’s the magic number where change actually happens,” says Boughton. Oregon’s women executives agree. “When you have more than two women on a board, there’s an additive effect; you have more confidence to speak out,” says Patricia Moss, chief executive and chair of the Bank of Cascades and one of three women who sit on the board of MDU Resources Group, a Fortune 500 company based in North Dakota.

Only four of the 46 public companies in Oregon have at least three women serving on their boards of directors: Nike, StanCorp, Albina Bank and Schnitzer Steel. There are only two companies with female chief executive officers — Schnitzer and Bank of the Cascades. Both  have at least one woman on their boards.