Economy | Business

Women Still Largely Absent From Corporate Boards

NPR | Dec. 10, 2013 9:11 a.m.

Contributed By:

Wendy Kaufman

Women are still not making headway when it comes to getting on corporate boards or into senior leadership roles within big companies.

New research out Tuesday examined Fortune 500 Companies and found that women hold only about 17 percent of the seats on boards of directors, and they have an even smaller percentage of senior executive positions.

Despite all the talk about the value of increasing gender diversity at the top, not much has changed according to Catalyst, a group that does research and promotes business opportunities for women.

Catalyst says this the eighth consecutive year the percentage of women on corporate boards didn’t budge. Deborah Gillis, the chief operation officer of Catalyst, says the findings, based on mid-2013 data, are very disappointing.

“Frankly it’s embarrassing,” Gillis says. “There’s no excuse in 2013 for women to remain shut out of the senior most decision making roles in these companies.”

Beyond issues of equity or fairness, there’s a strong business case for including more women. Researchers at Credit Suisse, for example, looked at the performance of more than 2,000 global companies over several years, ending in 2012. Companies with women on their boards had higher average returns on equity and higher growth.

These findings don’t prove women made the difference, but Credit Suisse’s CEO says that no one can say the results aren’t striking.

Katherine Phillips, a professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia University’s Business School believes women bring a perspective that men might not have. She says that diversity of perspective and opinion compels everyone in the room to think harder and more critically.

“You have something in your face telling you that your way of thinking about the world is not the only way,” Phillips says. “And so when I think about this problem, or solutions to this problem, I’m actually going to be more creative and more open to multiple perspectives.”

An expert in collective intelligence, Thomas Malone from MIT, suggests some slightly different explanations for why having women in the group can lead to smarter decisions.

“One possibility is that women are just more collaborative,” Malone says. “Our results … correlated with the degree to which people participated about equally, rather than a few people trying to dominate.”

Historically, many companies have maintained they hire the best person for the job. But Tom Falk, the CEO of Kimberly Clark, says if you’re only choosing talent from half the population, it is hard to imagine you have the best team. He says that to get more women, many managers will have to think differently.

“We often say we want ability, but we promote experience, or we select for experience,” Falk says. “We want someone who’s actually done it.”

And since there are so few women in those top categories, Falk says, it can be tough.

“You’ve got to be willing to reach for that person who has great ability, but maybe doesn’t have every experience you might want,” he says.

Kimberly Clark makes things like diapers and feminine products, so perhaps it is not surprising the company would want and indeed has a sizeable number of women in senior positions.

But the fact is many companies who sell lots of goods and services to women — like Apple, Comcast, Safeway and Toys R Us — have just a single female on their corporate boards.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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