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Five steps for seating women at the boardroom table

Wednesday, April 24, 2013   (0 Comments)
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susanbbutlerBy Susan Bulkeley Butler

Women represent about half of our country’s population and half of our workforce. But when it comes to the corporate boardroom, we fill just 14 percent of board seats.

 How can companies expect to produce the products and services they need to appeal to half of the population (and remember, women do most of the buying in United States households) when only 14 percent of their company directors are women?

Smart companies know they need to change. But how?

After spending much of my life in corporate America, during which time I was often the only woman in the room, I’ve seen some of the hurdles that women ― and companies ― face in bringing equality to the boardroom. Here are five steps every smart company can take to help overcome those hurdles:

1. Fill the pipeline. To have qualified women board candidates, companies need to help women become qualified candidates. They can do that by developing more women in the first place and putting them in line management and executive positions.  According to McKinsey & Co., 62 percent of senior women in the largest U.S. corporations are in staff jobs that rarely lead to CEO roles. That needs to change.

2. Create sponsorship programs. Men have benefited from corporate sponsorship and development programs for decades. That’s part of the reason men outnumber women in the boardroom today. Because the number of women at the top of the corporate ladder is so small, and the need for equality so great, forward-thinking companies are establishing sponsorship programs specifically for women. Mentoring programs can help, but typically women are over-mentored and under-sponsored. Smart companies like Boston Consulting Group have dedicated women’s initiatives that are designed to increase women’s roles in senior leadership. As a result, Boston Consulting and others with similar initiatives are consistently ranked among the best companies to work for and the best companies for working mothers.

3. Be family friendly. Women shouldn’t be forced to quit work because their work schedule isn’t flexible enough to accommodate their family. Companies need to retain women workers if they want to groom more women for the executive suite and boardroom. Worker retention is always important, but retaining working mothers is extremely critical if an organization really wants to get more women in their boardrooms.

A young woman once came to me to ask if she could work four-day weeks so that she could have Fridays to handle family duties. We worked it out. If she had her work completed and could be involved for meetings that might be scheduled, we could make it happen. Today, companies can create family-friendly cultures through flextime opportunities, parental leave and job-sharing programs.

4. Women, help women. One of the most disheartening things I’ve seen is women reaching the executive suite, but not helping other women succeed because they like being special or they feel challenged or threatened that they’ll lose their position to another woman. Instead, we should be opening the doors ― or rather, dropping the corporate ladders ― to bring other women up behind us, so that we have an opportunity to take on more responsibilities ourselves. We’re all in this together! By having so few women at the top, we are leading our organizations without involvement by some of the most talented people: women

5. Consider term limits. There’s a reason the Good Old Boy network continues to exist: The Good Old Boys keep getting older, but they don’t leave. Corporate boards often suffer from stagnancy because they don’t have enough turnover ― and stagnancy can hurt a company and its future. Limiting director terms by years on the board or by age is a way to overcome boardroom stagnancy  and make more room for women.

Equality and diversity are important for so many reasons. In the corporate world, it’s especially important. As study after study has shown us, companies with women on their boards and in their executive suites have better rates of return than those without.

A survey by Credit Suisse Research Institute, for example, found large companies with at least one woman on the board performed 26 percent better than those without.

If companies care about improving profits and return to shareholders, they ought to care about putting more women on corporate boards. As if they needed any more reasons.

Susan Bulkeley Butler is founder and CEO of the SBB Institute for the Development of Women Leaders and author of the book Become the CEO of You Inc. 

Views expressed in signed blogs and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and sponsors.

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