More women than ever before joined corporate boards in the first three months of 2009, but is this a recession-related blip, or a promising trend?
According to Directors & Boards magazine, 38% of executives named as independent directors on corporate boards in the first quarter were women, a “chart-busting” figure that’s by far the highest since the publication began tracking appointments in 1994.
For the past two full years (2007 and 2008), women made up one out of four board appointments. In the decade prior to that, the data fluctuated wildly, going as low as 9% in 2006 and over 20% in other periods. The passage of Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002 and its push for independent directors provided one impetus for boards to look more seriously at female candidates, but it wasn't until 2007 that females made up 20% or more new board members in each quarter, says Directors & Boards editor Jim Kristie.
Clarke Murphy, head of the CEO and board practice at search firm Russell Reynolds, says that the high first-quarter figure "is a statistical blip for that period," but believes that the number of female directors is on the rise overall. "I don't think finding a female director is a big deal anymore," he says.
One thing driving this influx, Murphy and others believe, is that there are simply more qualified female senior executives who are eligible to serve on boards. "That offers a wider pool of candidates to be drawn from," says Kristie. Just in the past three months, women have taken the helm as CEOs of blue-chip firms like DuPont, Yahoo!, and BJ's Wholesale. But according to Catalyst, a leading advocacy group for women in the workplace, the overall percentage of women in corporate officer positions at Fortune 500 companies held firm in 2008 compared to 2007. So the evidence is more anecdotal than anything, at least so far.
Another possible factor is that sitting CEOs, who are predominantly male, are increasingly reluctant to serve on more than one outside board nowadays, according to recent studies of board composition. That's also opened up a window for women.
However many women do end up joining corporate boards this year, what's clear is that they stand to have a long tenure. While men are usually considered for board roles in their 50s, women are tapped at a much younger age, Kristie says. Indeed, a good number of the newly-minted directors, like Juliana Chugg, a senior VP at General Mills recently named to the board at apparel maker VF Corp, are in their early or mid 40s.
That's significant, because these women will, over time, gain a large degree of influence on their respective boards and thus will be in a position to lobby for more qualified female directors, while at the same time mentoring up-and-coming junior executives inside the firm, creating, one hopes, a virtuous cycle. If nothing else, they'll surely bring some fresh perspectives and ideas at a time when companies are crying out for new thinking.
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