A “Winner” Company or a “Zero”? Ranking System to Bring More Women to Boards

pauladipernaContributed by Paula DiPerna

There’s nothing wrong with using the stage when you have it, and Diana Taylor, the former New York State Superintendent of Banks, did just that when she was recently honored for her leadership role by the Women’s Forum of New York City, a conclave of influential executive women.

Deftly, she worked into her remarks a clarion recruitment pitch. She looked out into the vast ornate ballroom of the Plaza Hotel and simply invited any interested party there to send her a CV to be considered for a seat on a Board in which she is involved. That is called casting the net widely, I thought—there were hundreds of qualified candidates in that room, and she was looking to recruit a woman for the position. This was an efficient use of a wide pool at hand.

But that was a “seize the day” appeal, the proverbial golden opportunity. Improving the representation of women on Boards appears to be one of those interminable journeys that needs permanent attention. Despite much discussion, we face stagnation in the ranks of women on Boards in the U.S. with the percentages sticking at just 11 percent for Fortune 1000 companies, according to Catalyst, which collects data on women in business.

Grassroots Effort

Improving gender diversity on Boards is far ahead in Europe. Norway has had an outright quota system requiring 40 percent women on public Boards since 2003. The European Union has issued guidelines that may become mandatory to increase women on Boards, and a recent report commissioned by the UK government called for at least 25 percent representation by women by 2015, with the same threat to make such goals mandatory.

So, to speed things along in the US, the effort is going grassroots, with the emergence of 2020 WOB, founded by Stephanie Sonnabend, CEO and president of Sonesta International Hotel Corporation. 2020 WOB is a social media system that aims to galvanize consumers, employees and others to transform the corporate Board rooms of major publicly owned American corporations. The organization will billboard the rankings of companies as they progress toward the goal of increasing the amount of women to 20 percent or greater on public company Boards in the U.S. By 2020.

The campaign’s goal is nothing less than to redefine good governance to require more representation from women, but not for its own sake. Why? As Sonnabend told me, “We all know that women and men think differently, and diversity also means diversity of thought.” But there are other reasons Sonnabend cites. Percentages of women on Boards are simply too low compared to other relevant governance and economic data. Sonnabend observed that, “Public companies have other constituents besides shareholders. Consumers and employees have much at stake when Board’s make decisions, and women are 80 percent of all consumers, 45 percent of the workforce and 50 percent of management.”

Indeed, against these data, the mere 11 percent female Board members is paltry considering the role that women play in the economic life of our country. Moreover, according to research on corporate performance and gender by McKinsey and Company in its 2010 Report “Women Matter”: “This statistically significant analysis confirms that companies with a higher proportion of women in their executive committees are also the companies that have the best performance.”

Our Aims

2020WOB plans to publish its rankings in January 2012, rating companies as follows:

W, for Winner, meaning 20 percent or better; V, for Very Close, meaning at least half the way to being a W; T, meaning Tokens, with only one woman in sight; and Zero, meaning, self evident.

The group also features and highlights companies that have already reached W status on its website, and Sonnabend proudly cites her company as an example–Sonesta has 40 percent women on its Board.

Overall, the goal of 2020 WOB seems to be to bring corporate governance down to earth and closer to the concerns of the broad public effected by the behavior and strategic judgments of public companies.

Using social media, 2020WOB is enrolling supporters at a rapid clip, as well as donors and others.

Of course there is no proof that more women on Boards would have averted the financial crises we lived through lately, nor improve today’s dismal unemployment rate in the U.S. But more women in high places certainly can’t hurt. And I try to extend this view throughout my professional activities. I have made a personal decision that I no longer serve on committees of any sort if 50 percent of my colleagues are not women, nor will I appear as the lone woman on an all-male panel if the group is larger than three. It’s not that I am trying to make a point. I simply know from experience that a fair representation of women makes any effort more effective, pragmatic, interesting and forward looking, and a better use of time.

To “catch” diversity, so to speak, one has to fish in a diverse pool. So it will be interesting to see how companies can explain or justify those eventual T or Z ratings!

To become a supporter of 2020WOB, see

Paula DiPerna is a strategic advisor and consultant, who draws upon a diverse leadership background, having served as the president of the Chicago Climate Exchange International, which pioneered global emissions trading, as well as the president of the Joyce Foundation, a leading US private philanthropy. Prior to these positions, she was vice president of the Cousteau Society for nearly 20 years, and worked with governmental organizations across the globe to establish sustainable business and governmental policies. As a noted public policy analyst, she served as a consultant to the World Bank, LEAD International, The Urban Justice Center, and is currently a Special Advisor to the Carbon Disclosure Project. She is also a widely published author of non-fiction books, a novel, and is currently working on a memoir addressed to emerging leaders.