Helping women achieve a greater share of board seats not only would help large and mid-market companies more effectively populate their upper ranks of executives with females, but it also would outfit most boards to operate more effectively in an America where most consumers and customers are women, and where those who echo the traditional director—middle-aged and older white males—comprise a smaller and smaller demographic.
“Boards of directors will increasingly see that companies that promote gender diversity and exhibit gender balance will rise in the reputation wars,” said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist for public relations firm Weber Shandwick. “Research shows that the inclusion of women on boards and on top teams helps drive financial performance, attracts talent and diminishes risk. The inclusion of women at all levels will soon become a key driver of corporate reputations worldwide.”
Women held about 18% of board seats at Fortune 500 companies in 2014, according to PwC, but last year comprised about 24% of new board members—so that marked considerable progress against the general goal of more female representation among directors.
Here are six ways that boards can boost this number even further:
1. Be purposeful. Boards must “seek out equal numbers of both men and women” to create a gender-balanced board, argued Shawn Casemore, an organizational consultant in Owen Sound, Ontario. Give the goal the priority it deserves: “Approach this gender equity task as if it is an EBIT goal,” advised Karissa Thacker, an executive coach and adviser. “If you don’t hit [the goal], hold yourself accountable as a board and course correct. If you do hit it, acknowledge your success.”
2. Recognize accomplished candidates. Look for women who have demonstrated achievement but may remain under the radar, advised Linda Henman, head of a Chesterfield, Mo., corporate consulting firm. They may serve on other boards in the same industry, be sitting CFOs or CEOs at smaller companies, or have demonstrated general financial acumen through experience in other industries.
3. Look to lower tiers. Traditionally, other CEOs and business owners have been the preferred pool for new directors. But the opportunities and demands of gender equity suggest examining other types of sources, including proven performers in roles such as marketing, human resources and information technology.
4. Seek domain experts. Notice who is participating in national, local and regional industry-association meetings, Henman suggested. Seek experts who write for the associations. Recruit at family-business conferences.
5. Tap into female executive networks. “Collaborate with women organizations that can provide feeder pools for candidates,” advised Kim Box, a former long-time executive of Hewlett-Packard who now heads Internet-media startup Kamere. These include Women Corporate Directors and the National Association of Corporate Directors.
6. Don’t wait. “Begin searching long before you need to find candidates,” Box said. “Look for opportunities to cultivate candidates so when the opportunity arises, you have a good pool of viable” possibilities.
Boards can set a tone of gender equity from the very top, creating a trickle down that can help transform their companies.