How to Get More Women on Boards

March 17, 2022

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on LinkedIn here. This was published on the OV blog October 2018 and updated March 2022. 

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I am uplifted by the growing number of efforts contributing to the gender equality and diversity movement around the world. When it comes to corporate boards, however, the momentum behind these efforts has been of little match to the formidable inertia that encompasses the board recruiting process.

The past two years have demonstrated an eager and enthusiastic commitment by many companies to embrace diversity in all its forms and push for change. Fortune 500 representation for women on boards and minorities has climbed from 34% in 2018 to 38.3% in 2020.

While gender equality and diversity advocates have made admirable efforts to increase awareness and push for change, the numbers reveal the vast amount of work that still needs to be done to achieve corporate boards that truly reflect the demographics of the country. Although minority women are estimated to comprise 20% of the US population, they account for only 5.7% of F500 board seats. That translates to less than a quarter of all female-held seats, and half the number of seats held by minority men.

We must face reality: the status quo will not change unless we change the way in which the status quo is reached. That endeavor starts with all of us, as board directors, taking an objective look at ourselves and challenging our traditional ways of thinking.

Not a supply-side problem

Achieving greater gender diversity on boards is not a supply-side problem. This idea, known as the pipeline problem, has been debunked. The lack of representation we see across corporate boards isn’t due to a lack of qualified and capable female and minority candidates—it’s a demand-side process problem. As long as boards churn out the same old specifications and go through the same old recruiting processes, it’s little surprise that we end up with (quite literally, in some cases) the same old directors!

If increasing female representation on board of directors is the objective, then we must begin by addressing the two fundamental flaws inherent in current recruiting processes:

  1. Reliance on the “network approach’: Despite the best efforts of recruiters, most board searches begin by asking current directors to suggest potential candidates. Naturally, we tap into our own networks. Given that we often tend to know people with similar backgrounds, it’s little surprise that the “network approach” perpetuates the problem. This trend is particularly evident in tightly-networked ecosystems like Silicon Valley where it’s common to see directors overlap across boards or to hear the same names suggested time and again.
  2. Exclusionary legacy criteria: Board searches often begin with two criteria that dramatically reduce the number of potential director candidates: (a) they must be a former or current CEO, and/or (b) they must have prior board experience. Given that only 26.5% of F500 board members are women and 17.5% are minorities of any gender, these restrictions—especially if both criteria are applied—reduce the potential pool of diverse candidates to the size of a wading pool.
  3. Re-engineering the process
    With this baseline in mind, I believe that the first and most vital step to improving gender and minority representation, including black women on boards starts with re-engineering the way we approach recruiting. Generating a more diverse slate requires tapping into new and larger pools of potential candidates, which can be accomplished by:

Re-engineering the process

With this baseline in mind, I believe that the first and most vital step to improving gender and minority representation, including black women on boards starts with re-engineering the way we approach recruiting. Generating a more diverse slate requires tapping into new and larger pools of potential candidates, which can be accomplished by:

  • Leveraging your own network to connect with female and minority board directors you know. Like myself, these people have undoubtedly attended female or POC networking events where they broadened their network of potential candidates and directors, but more importantly, they have likely been contacted by other women or POC who are interested in pursuing board roles and who otherwise wouldn’t be on your radar.
  • Retaining a specialist recruiting firm that makes it their mission to discover untapped female talent, as these companies are often magnets for female executives and leaders who are looking to take the next step towards becoming board directors.

Start with women

Personally, I was recruited to all three of my public boards by Trewstar, a boutique search firm that focuses only on board searches for companies looking to recruit female and minority directors.

Trewstar was founded 11 years ago by Beth Stewart, a former Goldman Sachs banker and a prior public company board director. Building upon the awareness that many not-for-profit organizations created around the lack of board diversity, Trewstar provides full-service recruitment and placement services for boards that want to add women and people of color.

Trewstar’s thesis matches my belief that finding qualified women and POC is not a supply-side problem. Their approach is to start by producing a slate of outstanding, qualified female candidates who meet the search criteria. If the board cannot find a suitable candidate from that slate, Trewstar expands the search to include male candidates. To date, Trewstar has filled 95% of seats with women, and 40% have been people of color.

Incidentally, two of the board searches in which I was a finalist candidate ended up appointing both women when they couldn’t decide between us. While this situation may be more the exception than the rule, I believe it’s a testament to Trewstar’s unique approach.

The lesson here is simple: dropping legacy criteria opens up a far greater pool of potential candidates, and adopting an alternative process to recruiting—simply by interviewing women first—may well be what’s needed to break the status quo stalemate.

In all the searches she’s undertaken, Beth has developed some consistent observations regarding the characteristics of the senior women she’s appointed and the traits which make great board members. As she explains, “Among the hundreds of candidates I’ve interviewed, I’ve observed almost without exception that c-suite and otherwise successful women tend to have three things in common: they’re intelligent, diligent, and collegial.”

Why does that matter? Because, as any director will tell you, finding candidates that are outstandingly competent and fit the board’s culture is a critical component to a successful appointment. Trewstar’s experience negates the unsubstantiated “fear” of disruption and is a strong endorsement for a process that breaks with tradition.

Quality and quantity

Speaking of unsubstantiated arguments, another source of frustration for us advocates of greater diversity has been the age-old maxim of “not wanting to compromise quality for the sake of diversity.”

For starters, I doubt you’ll find a single competent and qualified female board director candidate who would wish for anyone to compromise their standards in the effort to increase female representation. Tokenism, after all, helps no one.

Recently, one of my fellow (male) directors outlined a compelling concept for negating the “quality” concern:

  • Assume that the normal distribution of qualified male directors follows a typical bell curve, as does the distribution of qualified potential female directors.
  • Simply by virtue of the numbers themselves (notwithstanding the nominal size of each pool), we have recruited far more into the normal distribution of the male curve than the female curve. After all, if 75% of (Russell 3000) directors are men, then there’s still a lot of room to recruit from the highest percentiles of potential female candidates.
  • Assuming the criteria used for the x-axis of both curves is the same, recruiting from the upper echelons of normal distribution for women will likely result in a higher quality candidate than recruiting from the median of the male bell curve.

Of course, many counter-arguments to that model can exist, including that if prior board experience is one of the qualifying (x-axis) criteria, then the median of the male curve could be demonstratively further “to the right” than the median of the female curve. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful concept, and one can certainly argue that today’s 75:25 ratio in representation leaves a sizeable and untapped pool of talented women for board recruitment.

Get out from behind the 50-year eight ball

Like all change, success in re-engineering board recruiting processes starts with aligned, consistent, and determined leadership, along with an open-mindedness to try something new.

In an era where board directors continually evaluate management teams on their ability to keep pace with change, surely it’s incumbent upon us to lead by example. Placing undue weight on criteria such as prior board experience is a disservice to the shareholders we are collectively there to represent.

We must assemble the most cognitively-diverse boards possible and equip ourselves with the range of skills and experiences required for the sake of our businesses. According to research conducted at MIT Sloan, “companies with greater gender diversity are associated with higher R&D intensity, obtain more patents, and report higher levels of overall innovation (particularly when there is a critical mass of women directors).” 

Minority and women executives are also more likely to bring the skills necessary for growth in a post-pandemic economy. The Missing Pieces Report by Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity, or ABD, pinpoints these skills as “experience with corporate sustainability and socially responsible investing, government, sales and marketing, and technology in the workplace.”

2022 shows positive signs for diversity (literally) across the board. With the passing of SB286, California is the first state to achieve 30% female representation on boards of publicly traded companies with principal offices in the state. This past summer marked the first time ever that a majority of S&P 500 companies have over 30% female-filled seats on the board. And Nasdaq’s proposed Rule 5606(f) would require companies to either demonstrate the diversity of board members or disclose why their board lacks diversity.

However, as much as the latest statistics show positive movement, we won’t reach the targeted 40% gender and minority board representation rate (set by ABD) in Fortune 500 boardrooms until 2074 if the pace continues as-is. The issue continues to be the low rate of board turnover, and the fact that female and minority directors are not being hired into more than half the open positions.

Diversity—in regards to gender, race, ethnicity, or otherwise—is an imperative that’s only going to move further to the forefront. Efforts by institutional investors such as State Street Global Advisors, Vanguard, and Blackrock are significantly increasing the level of attention paid to the leadership, culture, and make-up of organizations—and their boards. Now is the time for us to reframe both our thinking and approach. We should no longer see diversity as a problem but instead as a solution to many of the challenges and opportunities our organizations face today.

So, on this International Women’s Day, let’s continue to push for new approaches and more concerted efforts to ensure that we reach gender and minority board parity long before 2074. Fifty years is decades too long to wait for the valuable contributions and perspectives that talented executives, who happen to be women and/or people of color, can bring to every boardroom.

Board Director

Dr. Anita Sands is a global technology and business leader, public speaker, and advocate for the advancement of women. She currently serves on the board of three Silicon Valley public companies - Symantec Corporation, Service Now, and Pure Storage, and is a board director at private companies, ThoughtWorks and AppBus. She is also an active advisory board member at DocuSign and Box. Anita earned both her Ph.D. in Atomic and Molecular Physics and bachelor's degree in Physics & Applied Math from Queen's University Belfast and a Masters in Public Policy and Management, with the highest distinction, from Carnegie Mellon University where she was a Fulbright Scholar. Before her latest career pivot into technology, Anita spent a decade in the financial services sector, specializing in enterprise transformation and technology-led innovation. She was the youngest ever-Senior Vice President at the Royal Bank of Canada where she served as the Head of Innovation and Process Design. At the age of 33, she was appointed as Chief Operating Officer, and subsequently as Head of Change Leadership, for UBS Wealth Management Americas, responsible for technology, operations, and corporate services. She joined her first F500 Board at the age of 37. Anita has been honored on many occasions for her contribution to technology leadership and the advancement of women. She holds a diploma in piano from the London School of Music and has traveled to all seven continents, including on an expedition to Antarctica with polar explorer, Rob Swan. Anita is a former all-Ireland public speaking champion and a frequent commentator on trends affecting the boardroom, digital transformation, and diversity.