Are Business Schools The Solution for Reaching Boardroom Parity?

business schoolBy Tina Vasquez, Editor

According to the Alliance Board for Diversity’s recent report “Missing Pieces: Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards”, men hold a bulk of the 5,488 board seats at American companies, with women representing just 16.6 percent of board seats, a percentage that hasn’t changed since 2004. The 2013 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board Directors and the 2013 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Executive Officers and Top Earners confirm the same, announcing that while companies based in other countries are moving ahead with plans to advance women to top leadership, progress in the Fortune 500 remains flat.

We all know that progress is slow, but few anticipated that it would be so stagnant, begging the question of whether or not addressing parity at the corporate level too late. While we may never know the answer, one thing is for sure: the actions of business schools can naturally lead to more diversity in the c-level suite and on corporate boards.

This, according to Susan Kulp, associate professor of accountancy at George Washington University School of Business. In hopes of once again jumpstarting the number of women on boards, the school has created a new program called On the Board and Kulp is its academic director. According to the New York Times, the program will take a “two-pronged” approach to the issue by helping women get shortlisted to be considered for open seats, and training women to be ready to step into those roles.

“There’s no doubt that the world is full of incredibly smart and accomplished women who can easily step into board service,” Kulp said. “We just help them get ready to take on those challenges by providing experiences in our residencies designed to expose them to the inner workings of board activities.”

Real Tools for Board Service
The program starts with a rigorous screening process where only 15 female executives from diverse backgrounds are chosen to participate. Most of the women have little or no experience sitting on corporate boards, though they are top managers at major corporations. Once chosen, the Fellows meet for three residencies throughout the year: one in winter/spring, one in summer, and the third in late fall. Between residencies, the fellows meet with their mentors, implement what they’ve learned in the previous residency, and build their networks. The university will track their successes and assist in helping them achieve a board appointment.

On the Board exposes its fellows to case study exercises to help them understand the functions of audit or compensation committees, for example, or panel discussions with board members, along with a dose of academics to deepen their contextual understanding of board issues. Kulp says the women are also given lots of time for interaction, information, and activities with globally-known experts to help them understand and better leverage their networks, as well as one-on-one mentoring with women who currently serve as board directors.

“The program not only gives the fellows real tools for board service, it gives them the confidence to walk into a board interview with a clear focus on the skills that they bring to the boardroom,” the academic director said.

Despite being a new program, On the Board is already proving to be successful. The inaugural class of 15 Fellows finished their final residency in mid-November and already, one member of the first class, Anita Sands, joined the Symantec board. Other members, Kulp said, have already accepted new, C-level opportunities. The school is also already being contacted by organizations that promote women for board service to see if fellows would like to be included in their databases. According to Kulp, several corporations with board openings have also contacted the program to review participants’ resumes. Given that relationship-building and personal interaction are so important, On the Board will be launching a formalized placement and advocacy effort in January in order to build long-term relationships and cast a wider, more inclusive net.

A Powerful Emerging Trend
After years of seeing the percentage of women on corporate boards languish at a flat 16 percent and witnessing the lack of women in the boardroom firsthand, Kulp said that George Washington University trustee Linda Rabbitt felt that it was time to move the needle. Rabbitt collaborated with former GWSB dean, Doug Guthrie, and the school’s partners at the International Women’s Forum to make On the Board a reality. A similar commitment was made when Harvard’s first female president, Drew Gilpin Faust, appointed the new dean, Nitin Nohria, who vowed to do more than his predecessors when it came to remaking gender relations at the school.

It seems that addressing the lack of female representation on boards and in the c-suite at the business school level may be a powerful emerging trend. The New York Times recently highlighted Harvard Business School’s (HBS) attempt to create gender parity in the classroom, transforming a male-centric culture, considered to be the breeding ground for corporate leaders globally, into one that fosters female success. While Harvard chose to focus its efforts on students, George Washington University School of Business is taking a different approach in identifying female executives ready to take the next step.

Kulp admits there are many complex reasons why female representation on boards remains so low and unchanged, though one of the biggest, she says, is that nominations are largely based on personal references, requiring that women be in the same network as the current board members. Clearly, women rarely find themselves in the “right” network. The advisor says she hopes that On the Board will give its fellows the training and platform to be viewed as “board ready”, help them be more strategic in how they use their networks, and ultimately, offer them opportunities to expand their networks in strategic ways.

“On some level, it’s frustrating that this is still an issue we’re dealing with in the 21st century, but most change happens by increments and then it just seems inevitable,” Kulp said. “We’re working toward the inevitability of women being fully represented at every level of the corporation. In the U.S., women earn over half of the bachelor’s degrees; they control or influence nearly 74 percent of the household spending, yet those percentages drop sharply when you look at the number of women in the C Suite or on corporate boards. That’s got to change, and it will.”