By Robin Madell (San Francisco)
As most of us know by now, companies with a strong proportion of women on their Boards of Directors perform better—it’s just that simple. But right now, according to August 2012 statistics from Catalyst, the percentage of board seats at Fortune 500 Companies held by women is only 16.1 percent in the United States. Among the organizations working to change this is 2020 Women on Boards (WOB), which has set a goal of increasing the percentage of women on corporate boards to at least 20 percent by 2020.
To this end, one of WOB’s initiatives is called simply “12/12/12.” That’s the date—December 12, 2012—that the organization plans to host a national conversation on gender diversity in U.S. corporate boardrooms. To understand more about this event and the organization behind it, The Glass Hammer spoke with Malli Gero, WOB’s Executive Director and Co-Founder.
In December 2010, two executives with expertise in women’s leadership decided the time had come. Stephanie Sonnabend, who sits on two corporate boards and is president and CEO of Sonesta International Hotels Corporation, and Gero, principal of Gero Communications, were both aware of the slow progress women were making in the executive suites and boardrooms in U.S. companies. They thus launched a national campaign in 2011 to try to do something about it.
“We started 2020 Women on Boards because we believed that until corporate stakeholders at all levels—employees, consumers, and shareholders—better understood what boards do and cared about board diversity as a way to get companies to better reflect the needs of their stakeholders, there would be no interest on the part of companies to diversify their boards,” says Gero.
The pair likens their campaign to the green movement. “Although information on the benefits of green policies had been around for decades, it wasn’t until consumers, and then shareholders, started to care about the issue that companies began to adopt green initiatives,” explains Gero. “So we rely on a grassroots approach.”
How does WOB try to make a difference? A primary way is by engaging people and asking them to register their support for the campaign on their website. “As we grow our supporters into the thousands—and tens of thousands—our supporters will send clear messages to companies that do not have women on their boards that it’s time to change,” says Gero.
The organization helps its supporters communicate with companies through monthly “2020 Challenges.” These challenges are, in effect, email blasts asking supporters to either congratulate a “W” company (defined as having 20 percent or more women board members) or encourage a “Z” company (defined as having zero women) by asking them to take the 2020 Challenge: put a woman on your board now, and get to 20 percent by 2020. The emails are sent to HR staff at each targeted company. “We know that people are starting to pay attention,” says Gero.
Breaking the Logjam
The number of women on corporate boards has been stuck in the teens for the past decade, reflecting little year-on-year growth. Yet Gero is optimistic, based on more recent signs of progress, that 20 percent is an achievable goal.
“We see 20 percent as a minimum, and for most boards, it translates to about three women directors,” says Gero. “But once a board takes the initiative to appoint a woman, they understand the value they add and will likely add more women, when qualified candidates are presented.”
What’s more, Gero notes that boardrooms are starting to see glimmers of change, suggesting that we’re moving in the right direction. Here are her comments on some of the highlights:
- Facebook: “We were one of the first groups to challenge Facebook on their all male board, and were thrilled with the appointment of Sheryl Sandberg.”
- 31-40-30: “News on Women, an online publication, reported that 31 women were appointed to boards in May, a record-breaking 40 women were appointed to boards in June, and another 30 in July.”
- BlackRock: “In June, our 2020 Challenge spotlighted BlackRock, a ‘Z’ company, and our supporters sent emails encouraging BlackRock to add a women to its board. Last month they appointed their first woman director, Jessica Einhorn. We can’t say with certainty that our emails resulted in Jessica’s appointment, but I’m sure we made an impression.”
What will it take to reach 20 percent by 2020? Gero says that companies not only need to say they embrace diversity—they need to practice it and incorporate it into their culture.
“CEOs and nominating committees must make an effort to recruit women when doing a search, and look beyond the traditional ‘C’-title requirements,” she says. “Women directors must use their positions and influence to ensure that women are recruited when their board has an opening. And CEOs must go out of their way to advance their women senior executives and introduce them to other CEOs who may be conducting a board search.”
At the individual level, there are other ways that women can take action and start to make an impact as well. One of those ways is through the 12/12/12 event. Gero explains that 12/12/12 will serve as a call to action to increase the number of women on corporate boards.
“On December 12 at noon, supporters will hold luncheon events across the country to promote discussion on the issue,” she says. “We already have close to 20 of these events planned, with more on the way. The events can be large, formal luncheons with keynote speakers or panels of experts, or more informal events in an office or in someone’s home.”
Though every 12/12/12 event will be slightly different depending on the organizers, all will have some things in common. Each luncheon will feature the new WOB video and will designate one person to tweet about their event. The event is also a fundraiser for WOB, with each participant required to make a $20 donation to the organization.
“We expect a huge social media presence on 12/12/12 on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn with features in traditional media outlets in cities where events are being planned,” says Gero. Those who are interested in holding 12/12/12 events can find information about it in the 12/12/12 Toolkit on the WOB website.
Beyond that, you can help to further WOB’s mission by volunteering to start 2020 chapters in cities that don’t yet have them, or by serving on a committee in cities that do. (The group currently has chapters in Boston, New York City, and New Orleans, with initiatives launching in Miami, Houston, Phoenix, Denver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.) The organization also needs women directors and other leaders who can speak to the issue of the value of gender diversity in the boardroom at business meetings, conferences, and colleges and universities with women’s leadership programs.
“We now have close to 3,300 supporters—we would like to see this number grow into the tens of thousands because strength in supporters sends a loud and clear message to companies that people are paying attention to this issue,” says Gero. “With more supporters, we can create a tipping point for change.”