NEW YORK, July 19, 2011 /PRNewswire/ -- How does having three or more women on a corporate board make a difference? Panelists at WomenCorporateDirectors' first-ever Global Institute dived into this issue this spring, at a gathering of 200 women directors from around the world. Participants examined the top issues confronting boardrooms after the financial crisis – including how women play a role in the boardroom.
"Women on the board are very good at putting the 'elephant in the room' on the table in an appropriate way," said Maggie Wilderotter, chairman and chief executive of Frontier Communications, speaking on the "Boards with Three or More Women" panel. Ms. Wilderotter is also a director at Procter & Gamble and Xerox.
Women bank directors and the financial crisis
Eileen Kamerick, a director at Associated Bancorp, a large regional bank holding company headquartered in Wisconsin, noted that it was in part the three women on Associated's board that helped the bank navigate an extremely difficult set of circumstances during the financial crisis, when the bank took TARP funds and slashed the quarterly dividend:
"The circumstances at the bank were such that it required courage, candor, and cohesion among the directors, and the three women directors played a very significant role in pulling together the board in order to make key decisions at a critical time. The role of the women directors was crucial at a point when the board not only had to pull together but also be candid with each other in talking about some very difficult issues."
Kyung H. Yoon, a director at Silicon Valley Bank Financial Group, had a similar experience when the Silicon Valley Bank went through the TARP process: "It was a very difficult time to get through, compounded by unexpected write-offs and pressures of the marketplace. But working through all this with a group of four women on a board of twelve really added a tone of resilience and emotional capability."
Breaking the "go along, get along" mentality
Ms. Kamerick sees women directors as able to counteract the "go along, get along" thinking common to boards. "Women coming into the room are not part of the old boys' club and have an ability to raise topics in a way that people find less threatening."
But this doesn't mean that women aren't capable of steering board discussion away from consensus, suggested Lulu Wang, a director at MetLife. "When the board is in the throes of a critical discussion, it's important to be reminded: 'Hey, hold on a second – let's just step back a bit. How does this fit into our long-term strategic plan?' Looking at the forest and not just the trees is such an important part of what a board does, and women do it very well."
"We don't have two heads"
"Breaking the ice is getting the first woman on the board because you can prove to other board members that we aren't that scary – that we don't have two heads," half-joked Ms. Wilderotter. As the first woman on the Yahoo! board, she came into a typical Silicon Valley company that had all male directors. Her joining "gave them a level of comfort that more women could be on the board." Although no longer a Yahoo! director, there are now two other women on the board. "If you start with one, you'll get more," she said.
Board quotas – "beginning at the end"
As quotas mandating female representation are gaining traction in Europe, the merits of these kinds of laws are questionable among many women directors. Bonnie Gwin, Vice Chairman at Heidrick & Struggles, chair of the Make-A-Wish Foundation's national board of directors, and moderator of the panel, noted that women's representation on Fortune 500 boards "hovers in the 13 to 15 percent range." She asked panelists how they could shift the paradigm to increase the number of women directors.
"I don't believe that quotas solve the problem," said Ms. Wilderotter. What companies must do instead, she suggested, is help build the pipeline of women in the operational roles that are so attractive to board nominating committees: "We don't have enough women in operating positions, and affording women that opportunity in the pipeline is critical."
Eileen Kamerick agreed: "The operating role, versus the staff role, is really critical for movement into the higher C-suite positions and board seats," she noted.
Looking to entrepreneurs to fill board seats is another option, Ms. Wilderotter said. Of the four women on the Frontier board, two are entrepreneurs. "They've never run a Fortune 1000 company, and they are terrific board members. So I do think that you have to think out of the box and make sure that you're going after skills and capability as well as pedigree."
"There are places for quotas, but the board is not the place," agreed Donna James, a director of Coca-Cola Enterprises, Limited Brands, and Time Warner Cable. "We need to start diversity down in the corporation and getting more women into roles so that they are prepared. It's so systemic that I'd hate to begin at the end. It really needs to start back where we encourage our girls from an educational standpoint."
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WomenCorporateDirectors (WCD) is the only global membership organization and community of women corporate directors, comprised of more than 1,000 members serving on over 1,200 boards in 32 chapters around the world. In this new era of responsibility, WCD is committed not just to good governance, but to governance with global vision. WCD launched is first-ever Global Institute in May 2011 in New York City.
WCD's global chapters are located in Arizona, Atlanta, Beijing, Bogota, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Delhi, Denmark, Hong Kong, Israel, Lima, London, Mexico City, Minnesota, Mumbai, New York, Northern California, Northern/Central Europe (Berlin), Paris, Philadelphia, Sao Paulo, Seattle, Shanghai, Singapore, Southern California, South Florida, Switzerland, Tennessee, Toronto, and Washington, D.C. Chapters in Abu Dhabi, Australia, Cairo, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Houston, Iceland, Malaysia, and South Africa are in formation.
Our mission is to continue to expand the WCD community through leadership, diversity, education, best practices in corporate governance, and a focus on development and new board placement opportunities. WCD offers local, regional, national, and international forums, providing a platform for turning ideas into action. For more information, visit womencorporatedirectors.com.