Why there aren’t more Women (or Minorities) on Corporate Boards

Whenever I read an article lamenting the fact that aren’t more women (or minorities) on corporate boards in the US, I experience two very conflicting sentiments; wry understanding offset by a seriously bad taste in my mouth.

First, research on women and governance usually reveals that women aren’t advancing in corporate America as fast or as far as might be expected. To some extent, I can understand this, because most of corporate America runs on a code of precedent developed by the “old boys club” and more advantage accrues from status quo power and politics than from innovation. That’s a shame, and its also a turn-off for many talented women, who prefer to work in more empowering environments. If we can’t envision a different future, we certainly won’t be able to achieve it, so I have no problem with anyone opting out of a prototypical corporate career. Nevertheless, women and minorities who do choose to go the corporate route should have the same opportunities to get ahead as their white, male peers. Do they?

Second, and more personally resonant to me, the chest-banging and hair pulling over the fact that there aren’t enough good female (or minority) candidates to serve on the Boards of publicly traded companies is a bit disingenuous. Where is everyone looking for their candidates and how do they describe the attributes of a desirable Board member? I can tell you where these companies and recruiters are NOT looking, and that’s at the the women and minorities who serve on the Boards of non-publicly traded companies.

A probably statistically significant group of my female and minority colleagues have, as I do, decades of experience in governance. We’ve served on the Boards of non-profits, social enterprises, special-purpose investment funds, and a wide range of privately held emerging markets companies in sectors like telecoms, energy, mining and financial services. We have law degrees and/or MBAs from prestigious schools, have traveled and lived overseas and are widely-read. Most of us not only speak more than one language, we actively participate in Board meetings held in languages other than English. Integrity, not income, is what makes you a rock star in our spheres of influence. Companies we’ve helped build have risen to national and international leadership positions. Some have gone public, but those happy events usually mark the end of social/development investment periods and our Board seats.

When it comes to potentially serving on the Board of a US Corporate, however, what we’re all being told is that we don’t have corporate governance experience. Really? These past 25 years I’ve just been going to tea parties or something? Gosh, but it sure felt like work – and work that was at times ethically challenging as well. Why doesn’t my Board experience “count” in my home country?

The response is that my colleagues and I don’t have experience with companies that are publicly traded and regulated under US Securities Law — and this is absolutely true. But so what? I’ve taken an NASD course on corporate governance for publicly held companies and it didn’t seem that hard or arcane. I just don’t see that regulatory knowledge is a viable obstacle to increasing women and minority participation on Boards. With Frank-Dodd implementation in process, US financial regulation is more complex than ever, so more legal and regulatory training for all Board members would probably be a good idea regardless!

How else could we overcome the “public company” knowledge gap? When a potential Director’s governance experience is in privately held companies, the company and existing Board can require completion of one or more training courses on public company regulation. We could pair new Directors with their more experienced colleagues so that informal mentoring supports the newbies climb up the learning curve. Board Chairs can look for a Board Committee appointment that draws on one or more of a new Director’s strengths. But please let’s stop turning our backs on all the talented women and minorities whose hard-won governance experience could be just what corporate America needs to develop a sustainable long-term vision of success.

The Boards of US Corporates and Banks need more people willing to take informed risks around equitable and sustainable innovation and fewer who take risks related to accounting practices. On behalf of all the women and minorities whose governance work makes the world a slightly better place, let me tell you that there are many of us out here willing to help your company tackle the challenges of economic growth. Next time you need to fill a Board seat, look a little longer or deeper. One of us will be there, fiduciary responsibility firmly in hand.

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