By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
At last month’s Forté MBA Women’s Conference, the Forté Foundation announced an initiative to increase the number of women on corporate boards in the US. By working with its partner schools, as well as Intrabond Capital, Watermark, and Women on Boards 2020, the organization will develop a list of hundreds of board-ready professional women.
After all, despite a plethora of qualified women ready to take board seats, companies still seem to need help locating them. According to Catalyst, women only held about 16% of board seats at Fortune 500 companies last year. Perhaps a list of women ready to take on director positions will encourage companies to think twice about whom they hire for top roles and why.
Elissa Ellis Sangster, Executive Director of the Forté Foundation explained that each of the organization’s member schools will be asked to participate. “We’re asking the schools specifically to identify five women. And at least some will identify more than that.”
It will take some time to develop, Sangster explained, noting that the women identified will have to give their permission to be included on the list as well, and the schools will provide a representative who can work with executive search firms and other groups looking for women board candidates. “We’re really trying to be a conduit,” she explained.
The announcement was inspired by a similar move by European business schools to help position their accomplished female graduates for board seats. The percentage of women on boards varies across Europe, with the high in Norway at about 40%, due to the country’s quota law. In Germany the percentage is about 16% and in France it’s about 20%. In Finland, Latvia, and Sweden, women hold about a quarter of board seats. But in many countries – like Greece, Italy, Portugal, and more – the numbers are extremely low.
In response to the low numbers (and many companies’ apparent refusal to budge on the issue), earlier this spring, the European Business Schools / Women on Board initiative published a list of 3,500 board ready women in Europe. The list was intended to show companies that there was no need for the slow pace in hiring women to director positions. And, just since March, the list has doubled in size.
In fact, just last month EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding commented that the list could be the jolt companies need to start filling their boards with a fair percentage of women, in order to stem her looming threat of gender quotas. “I do not accept the argument that there aren’t enough qualified women to fill supervisory boards – you just need to look at the list of 7,000 ‘board ready’ women that European Business schools published a few months ago to see that there are,” she said. “The pool of talent is there – companies should now make use of it.”
Sangster explained that Forté’s unique role in connecting with women with business schools positioned them perfectly for the task of building a similar list in the US. “No one had that relationship with business schools that we do.”
Being Board Ready
What makes you board ready? Sangster explained that boards are looking for many different qualities and skill sets. “There is a multitude of experiences and backgrounds, but what corporate boards want most is diversity. Diversity of thought, diversity of gender, diversity of ethnicity, diversity of experience.”
She continued, “One of the key things is having line experience and having the rigor that makes you qualified to serve on a board.”
Having served on a board for a smaller company already can be a good resume booster, she added. “They want to see you’ve dipped your toe in the water.”
If you think you’re close to being ready for a board seat, she continued, there are a number of groups that can give you a skills assessment or do a diagnostic on your resume to identify gaps. She encouraged women who want to apply for board seats to do this early in their career, so that they can be sure to get the appropriate kinds of experience.
“The second piece is really making sure that your accomplishments are totally appropriate and interesting to a board,” she continued. That could mean tailoring your resume to include specific keywords that a recruiter may be seeking out.