The State of Massachusetts

iStock_000004552349XSmall_1_.jpgby Liz O’Donnell (Boston)

The rest of the country may paint Massachusetts as an ultra-liberal state, but for many women living in the Commonwealth the reality is actually much more conservative and a little old-fashioned.

According to a report published last month by The Boston Club, which provides networking and professional support for women in business, the number of female executives and directors in the state’s 100 largest public companies fell in 2008. In fact, the number and percentage of women executive officers, and the percentage of companies with a woman among their most highly compensated officers, fell to the lowest point since The Boston Club began tracking the data in 2003. When this information is coupled with the fact that women comprise just 26 percent of the Commonwealth’s legislature, the state of women in Massachusetts looks grim.

“The Old Boy’s Network is alive and well,” says Vicki Donlan, author of “Her Turn: Why It’s time for Women to Lead in America.” Donlan is also the founder of Women’s Business, a Massachusetts-based newspaper. “Boston is a conservative part of the country,” she says. “It takes a long time to move forward.”One statistical factor in this year’s results was a change in the composition of companies surveyed. Since 2005, 26 companies have dropped off the list, eleven of them in the past year. The result is eight fewer women directors, 17 fewer women executive officers and six less women among the top compensated executives.

Regardless of what is driving the survey results, the numbers tell a sad story about gender equality in Massachusetts’ top public companies. Women make up less than ten percent of the 736 executive officers of the 100 companies surveyed. This is the lowest percentage in six years. The majority of these companies (54 percent) have no women executive officers at all. Only 24 companies list a woman among the most highly compensated executives.

Last year the number of large public companies in Massachusetts without women at the highest echelon was 23. This year 30 of those companies have no woman directors or executive officers. In fact, women hold only 11 percent of the 837 board seats among these companies. That is a decline from the previous year. Thirty-nine of the companies surveyed have no women on the boards of directors.

Poor succession planning may be a contributing factor in these results; however it is also an opportunity for improvement. Nineteen of the companies have 26 independent directors over the age of 75. Forty percent of the independent directors on nine of the boards have served for more than 15 years, some for as long as 30 years.

“Board seats are out there to be had,” says Susan C. Hammond, principal of scHammond Advisors, a strategic planning and business coaching company. “Women need to be forceful about getting them.” Hammond recommends women let people know they are available and willing to serve on boards. Corporate attorneys, auditors and accountants are all good sources for board opening as are organizations like The National Association Corporate Directors.

JoAnn Cavallaro, chair of the Corporate Board Resource Program, for the Boston Club says the survey results are “cause for great concern.”

“We have made enormous progress,” says Cavallaro, “but there is still much work to be done.”

Dr. Anne Perschel, president of Germane Consulting, a Massachusetts-based coaching and consulting firm, concurs.

“It will take a long time,” Perschel says in reference to when we might see a more equitable makeup of business leaders. “There are some companies getting it. From a financial perspective, they understand where business will come from and where employees will come from.”

In fact, as we have previously reported, Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that helps build inclusive workplaces, released a study showing Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of female directors have higher financial performance than those with the lowest female representation. Add to that the fact that women represent approximately 85 percent of the consumer buying power in the U.S. and it only makes sense for businesses to put women in positions of power.

Donlan offers this advice to women looking to improve the status of women executives: “Support each other. Refer women. Buy from women. Vote for women. Take on leadership roles and do the job well –it will reflect on other women.”

The report, “Succession Planning and Diversity: A Winning Combination in Troubled Times: The 2008 Census of Women Directors and Executive Officers of Massachusetts Public Companies” is a joint project of The Boston Club, Bentley University and Mercer.