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Here Come The Women Directors

The fight is over. The battle is won. Women are now accepted as outside directors in the preponderance of American …

The fight is over. The battle is won. Women are now accepted as outside directors in the preponderance of American corporate boardrooms. However, statistically speaking, women still have a long way to go.

According to a study by women’s organization, Catalyst, in New York, “Women on Corporate Boards: The Challenge of Change,” approximately 500 women serve on Fortune 500/Service 500 company hoards. Of the 11,715 potential board seats involved, women hold only 721 or 6.2 percent.

These numbers probably will double or triple within the next three or four years. And even more impressive strides will be made by women directors in small and regional companies, and in corporations where women are key customers or major employees.

Two questions immediately come to mind. Why has it taken so long? What finally is causing the breakthrough?

The answers to the first question reflect both real and perceived reasons. Not enough women possess adequate business and executive experience. Too many talented women chose career paths that were not conducive to board selection-law, public accounting, investment and commercial banking, advertising, and management consulting-most of which have potential conflicts of interest. Too many competent women opted for staff jobs instead of line-management careers. In addition, many male chief executives and directors feared women board members would be feminists first and objective directors second. Some older CEOs and directors simply resisted change here in the same way they dragged their feet on changing other corporate management policies and practices. Times are different today. The “token” women who did serve on boards have performed well. More women are emerging as operating executives of corporations and as CEOs of small companies. The old, reticent chief executives and directors are retiring, and their younger successors are much more attuned to women executives and, in turn, directors. The surge of women MBAs that began 20 years ago now is producing women executives in their 40s, which makes them much more eligible for board consideration.

As a long-time observer of the passing boardroom scene, I have found that women (as well as men) who are first-time board candidates usually do not effectively present themselves for consideration. To correct this problem, here are a few suggestions: €.Streamline your resume. Many resumes, especially those of academics and non-business women, are filled with extraneous detail. They should be rewritten to contain and emphasize all of the pertinent facts that deal with a corporate director’s job.

  • Learn what directors and boards do. Read books, articles, and lots of proxy statements. Subscribe to a directors’ magazine. Join the National Association of Corporate Directors and perhaps take one of its short courses.
  • Ask for help. Interview some experienced directors, both men and women. Ask them to comment on your resume and approach. If you can find a mentor who will help you on your way, so much the better.
  • Try to get board experience. Seek nonprofit boards with structured organizations, small company boards, or advisory boards. Play an active role in committees and procedures. If you are on a board now, try to get named to the compensation committee or the audit committee. Don’t remain stuck on the Social responsibility committee.
  • Contact a recruiter. Visit one who makes a specialty of recruiting women and minority directors. Such a recruiter is not an employment agency, but you should be in its files. Recruiters tell me they now have more qualified women director candidates on file than ever before.
  • Plan your interview. When and if you are interviewed for a directorship, do a thorough job of preparation and ask probing questions. Don’t simply riffle the annual report and answer the interviewers’ questions.

If you do all of these things, will you receive a board invitation? Of course not. You also must have the basic education, talent, work experience, and presence the board or nominating committee requires. You are competing for the open slot with other women and men who want it badly. But you have significantly enhanced your chances of being considered.

Becoming a director is much like any other high-level job search. Get the experience. Match your experience and talents with the job opportunity. Be meticulous in presenting yourself. Network your contacts.

If you are a woman who is a director candidate, don’t sit home and wait for the telephone to ring. It will be a long wait. It’s time to get going.

If you are a CEO and haven’t yet elected a woman director, you’d better get ready. The women are coming.


Formerly the CEO of F.&M. Schaefer (19721977), Robert W. Lear is chairman of CE’s advisory board. He also teaches at Columbia Business School, where he is Executive-in-Residence. He is an independent general partner of Equitable Capital Partners and holds directorships with Cambrex Corporation Inc.; Scudder Institutional Funds; Korea Fund; and Welsh, Carson, Anderson, Stow Venture Capital Co.

About robert w. lear