Women on Corporate Boards Study Released

boardroom.JPGby Erin Abrams (New York City)

This week, the annual Women on Boards survey was released. The study tracks the number of women sitting on the Board of Directors of the 100 largest companies in the greater Philadelphia area. As the study is now in its eighth year of collecting data, it provides an interesting set of data to measure women’s progress over time, as represented by their presence on boards and in C-suite positions at major companies that can lead to their appointment to directorships.

According to Elva L. Bankins, President of The Forum of Executive Women, “Now, more than ever in this challenging economy, companies must embrace strategies to recruit, retain and promote women to executive suites, creating a pipeline of talent extending all the way to the top. American companies simply can no longer afford ‘business as usual’ when it comes to recruiting new directors and planning for management succession.”

The survey, which can be found in its full form online at the Forum of Executive Women’s website, concluded overall that women occupy a disproportionately small number of seats on boards, and that that number is growing slightly each year, but it is not moving quickly towards parity. At present, women make up only 10% of directors of the major publicly-held companies surveyed. Women’s participation on boards has remained essentially flat in recent years. Though the date from 2007 shows that women held 89 of the total 884 current board seats, this ratio is essentially identical to the 2006 numbers, which showed that 93 women held a total of 893 board seats. This 10% figure is only a marginal increase over the 9.6% recorded in 2005 and 9.73% in 2004. Philadelphia, as a midsized city with many national corporations based in or around its environs, could be viewed as a microcosm for women’s board participation nationwide. However, according to a survey by Catalyst, 14.7 percent of the board seats on the Fortune 500 are held by women nationwide, so Philadelphia lags a bit behind the national average.

Several companies deserve recognition for being early adopters for women’s representation on boards. Specifically, Charming Shoppes, Inc. had 5 women directors of a total of 8, CIGNA had 3 female directors of a total of 12, Genesis HealthCare had 2 women of 8 board members, Harleysville National had 3 women filling 11 board seats, Kenexa had 2 female board members of 8, Mothers Work, Inc. had 2 women in 7 board seats; and Penn Virginia Resource Partners, rounded out that distinguished group with 2 women filling 8 board seats.

The study also looked at women in C-suite executive office positions (Chair, President, CEO, CFO and COO), as these tend to be “feeder” positions for board members. Predictably, this number has remained static in recent years.

Measuring the number of women on board seats is important, because it is a quantitative proxy for measuring women’s advancement in the business world. When, as this study shows, women are not achieving parity in their representation on corporate boards, the solution is not as simple as appointing more women as directors. The lack of women on corporate boards is indicative of a systemic lack of qualified candidates in the pipeline, and the institutional barriers to their advancement that exist in society. Thus, this kind of data is useful, because it helps companies shed light on their own corporate culture, and compare themselves to the “early adopters” so that they can develop best practices for promoting women up the chain of command at every level and creating a work environment that is conducive to women’s advancement.