Persisting Through The Dark: Women in the Boardroom

The 2017 Heidrick & Struggles Board Monitor: Is Diversity at an Impasse? highlighted that after seven years of slow progress since the survey began, “women directors lost ground” in Fortune 500 companies.
The share of women-held seats dropped by 2 percentage points to 27.8%. The 50% projection pushed to 2032, yet again moved further off in the future.
So it’s no surprise that in their inaugural survey, Nevertheless, She Persisted: The Challenges and Opportunities Experienced by Senior-level Executive Women as They Journey to the Boardroom, Women in the Boardroom (WIB) found that the two words senior-level, executive women are mostly likely to use when it comes to the process of seeking a boardroom seat are “excited” and “frustrated”.
WIB surveyed over 500 senior-level, executive women who were either already serving as corporate board directors (25% of sample), or were interested in service, about their experiences.
The report found a tension between “the excitement that women feel at the prospect of service – and the frustration of securing that opportunity.”
Boardroom Journey: Obscured, Unsupported & Opaque
In their previous 2016 Board Monitor, Heidrick & Struggles pointed out that a major reason women representation is not moving forward is that “most boards are seeking new members from among ‘the usual suspects”, applying the same old process to the candidate selection pool, criteria and picks.
Indeed the WIB survey found that 90% of respondents felt that male networks dominate corporate boardroom searches and over 60% felt they function more effectively than their own women’s networks. 39% of women felt they had no board influencers in their personal network. Yet networking (and broadcasting their intention) remains a core tactic among women who seek, and especially attain, a board seat.
The report authors say, “there are exclusionary practices at play” including that often corporate culture doesn’t seem to actively support women’s boardroom ambitions, as 28% of senior-level, executive respondents chose not to talk about their boardroom aspirations at work.
Only 16% of respondents indicated their employer makes gender diversity in the boardroom a priority that is backed with action, policies and standards, and only 4% feel personally supported in their boardroom intentions.
While the candidate selection process is a well-worn default that fails to serve diversity, or ultimately business itself, pushing oneself towards the boardroom as a woman remains confusing. It’s still far from clear to most senior-executive women just how to break into the boardroom, from what remains a position of outsider status: being a woman.
Among respondents, 66% felt that the selection process is “opaque and mysterious” compared to other aspects of career advancement. 36% have no or only occasional interaction with their company’s board, and 30% of women who have boardroom ambitions don’t have a strategy for securing a seat.
The Persistence of Imposter Syndrome and Unconscious Bias
Even though the WIB survey was among senior-level, executive women that by all indications have achieved professional success, nearly 70% believed that high -achieving women are still deterred by both the inability to internalize and own their success and their fear of being exposed as inadequate.
The third most popular term used to describe pursuing a boardroom seat is “intimidated”. Despite that, 62% of respondents felt confident they are qualified and will get a board seat, and more women felt “excited” and “empowered” by the process than overwhelmed.
Even more prominent is the contextual reality of unconscious bias, such as how boards tend to end up gender matching, meaning they replace men with men and women with women.
Research has shown that awareness alone can’t mitigate unconscious bias – there is a level at which influences on decision making remain unconscious.
Showing You Mean Business About Boardroom Aspirations 
The WIB survey found that women who get through the door were more likely to prioritize securing a seat as a top career priority (83% vs 70% of all respondents).
These women “create a plan, market to their network, work on crystallizing their value add as a candidate, and invest in expert help, whether through coaching or membership in specialist organizations.”
The results revealed these women are taking specific and visible initiative, showing it matters to put your hat in the ring while being vocal about it.
Among these women, 80% belong to a networking organization (vs 66% of women), 67% belong to a board-specific networking organization (vs 40%) and 83% have alerted their network of their ambitions (vs. 54%).
So it’s fair to say that speaking up about boardroom intentions and getting specific in your actions, whether you feel supported by corporate culture, matters to reaching the coveted seat.
This not only means reinforcing your own right to put yourself forward, but advocating for other women, which only 34% of respondents agreed that women do.
For A Different Story: A Different Candidate Pool
Ultimately, we need a story about women on the boardroom that’s not about how some women beat the odds to break into the boardroom. We need a report that doesn’t have to say, as the WIB report states, “executive women thrive often in the absence of supportive structures and culture at work.”
Sure they do. But how much longer will that be the requirement these women have to meet?
We need a story in which the odds are for women rather than against them, in which they are invited into the boardroom not breaking into it, in which there isn’t too often a glass cliff hiding underneath the welcome mat when it appears, in which a corporate culture of both support and access are present rather than lip service and evasiveness, and where senior-level, executive women don’t see the path to the boardroom as mysterious, even from their relatively advanced position.
The report authors urge companies to look at communication, connection and culture as three key areas in which they can better support women into the boardroom.
And the one thing that makes a difference to increasing female selection to the board, according to Stanford research, is simply putting more women candidates into the candidate pool.
Boardrooms that truly hold themselves accountable to diversity will broaden their candidate pool and use vision to change the way the candidate sphere is defined.
Until then, we’ll celebrate the women who swim upstream – and often through the dark – to claim their too rare place in the boardroom. a