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U.S. women seek opportunities on European boards

Wednesday, October 26, 2011  
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European companies may be soon be looking for hundreds of female directors to fill quotas, prompting American executives to send their resumes across the Atlantic, according to one report.

At least 10 European countries, including Norway, France and Spain, have approved quotas or corporate-governance codes for women representation on boards, or are considering them. Meeting that demand may require more than 1,000 new female directors in the next three to five years, based on a report on 334 companies in 17 countries by executive recruiting firm Russell Reynolds Associates, according to a recent Bloomberg report.

Although they may face language barriers and resistance to outsiders, U.S. women executives are eager to take their experience overseas, Bloomberg reported. Doreen Wright, who retired as Campbell Soup Co. chief information officer in 2008, for example, is part of a growing number of Baby Boomers transitioning from full-time executives to professional directors.

"I feel like what is happening in Europe is important, and I want to be part of it,” Wright told Bloomberg. Wright, 54, had a 29-year corporate career that started at Merrill Lynch and included Bankers Trust Co., American Express Co., Prudential Insurance and Nabisco. A director for U.S. companies Crocs Inc. and Dean Foods Co., Wright studied in Munich and some of her roles included European and South American operations.

The Russell Reynolds report for the European Professional Women's Network found that among 4,875 directors at 334 companies in Europe, 12 percent, or 571, were women. Getting to 40 percent would mean more than 1,300 additional female directors.

"Unless you have some of the same women serving on many, many boards, the pool of candidates [from existing European executives] may not be as robust as you need it to hit those numbers,” Julie Daum, co-leader of corporate recruiter Spencer Stuart's North American board, told Bloomberg.

Some European boards conduct meetings in English. Others require native speakers, which can determine eligibility, noted Wendy Lane, a former Tyco International Ltd. director and current board member for two companies based in Europe, in addition to Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings in the United States.

Also, the eight-hour flight across the Atlantic Ocean requires women with flexible schedules, she told Bloomberg.

Because there is a shortage of European women executives in their 50s, Lane said that the age group is the "sweet spot” for directors, particularly for women with operating experience. "I'm generally not for putting diversity as a number one criteria, but on the other hand it does not seem to be happening naturally, so maybe it has to be forced with a timeline, which I think is very unfortunate,” Lane said.

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