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Women On Board: The Media Problem

October 2, 2017
“The capacity of the mind to solve complex problems is very small compared with the size of the problems.”
— Herbert Simon

Women have infiltrated all the major professions of law, medicine, accounting, and even academia, now that they earn over half the Ph.D.s. So why are they having trouble getting into the boardroom?

As with everything else these days, there is fake news about the boardroom, too. As a director of 10 public company boards and a media background as publisher of Forbes and founder of Directorship, I have learned the importance of separating myth from reality.

The media is clueless

To a business journalist, writing about corporate governance is like a muscle car nut writing about the Prius.

There are four reasons everything you read about the boardroom can be taken with a heaping spoonful of salt. Every year around proxy season, a male senior editor assigns a governance article to a female junior reporter, chosen specifically to highlight bias in the boardroom before the article is even written. Secondly, the reporter never ventures near the boardroom or speaks to directors. Thirdly, confirmatory comments by consultants, in return for good ink, lead the reader into believing this is science not opinion. That is like saying a Miami real estate broker is telling the truth when he says land always goes up in value. Fourth, the published story concludes with a wagging finger pointed at the men on the board, who dutifully say they will try harder next time.

Rinse and repeat.

Diversity is the hallmark of a high functioning board of directors and the vast majority of boards know it and why they have women on the board. The real problem is due to a variety of customary, reinforced, incentivized practices that make it very difficult to recruit large numbers of women at one time.

The challenge for women in the boardroom isn’t storming the gates, it is just getting the gates to open wider and stay open.

Here are the top 11 challenges believed to prevent women from better representation inside the boardroom—some quite true, others not so much.

Bias: False. The boardroom as it is currently comprised has placed some women on nearly 100% of big company boards. The challenge is how can they go from one to many — and fast. To do that, we will need to deal with some of the intrinsic problems below.

Vetting: True. Bringing on a new director can take a year or more while the candidate meets every director in person, and in some cases the C suite. The candidate may be a current CEO or a very busy entrepreneur. Directors are just as busy and have to travel great distances to interview. The turnstile moves slowly if your goal is to increase the flow of women.

Qualifications: True and False. You don’t need to be an accountant or an MBA, which in theory opens the boardroom doors a bit wider to people of different backgrounds, especially women. Ironically, it also can cut the other way. Lacking objective criteria, the board becomes tentative and will often go with people it knows. Men know men.

Hierarchy: True. If a CEO is rated superior to a CFO or a computer expert is rated higher than a marketer, more men will serve on boards.

Litigation: True. With unlimited liability for directors, any sudden change in the way a board is comprised catches the watchful eye of the plaintiff bar.

Turnover: True. The average director serves for 10–20 years, so turnover is slow.

Minority: False. (As in a voting minority). While it’s true that women can be outvoted, boards operate on unanimity. Even as a minority, women have a strong say.

Seasonality: True. Directors are appointed once a year, only so many can be added on that occasion.

Cost: True. The cost of a single board recruitment can run high as $250,000. Spending a million dollars to recruit 4–5 directors is a nonstarter.

Experience: False. Succession plans and compensation are pre-packaged by consultants. This lessens the need for specific experience requirements.

Regulation. True. After Sarbanes- Oxley, boards no longer allow lawyers and bankers associated with the company to serve as independent directors. Women make up half the lawyers today and many investment bankers. If they are building their networks as they should, that could eliminate them due to their work for the company.

Other parts of this article:

Part I (Silicon hypocrisy)

Part III (Global solution)

 

Author’s Bio

Jeff Cunningham is an advocate for enlightened global leadership, which he calls the most valuable natural resource in the world. 

He is a Professor at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management and was the former publisher of Forbes Magazine, startup founder, digital content CEO, and ran an internet venture capital fund.

He travels the globe in search of iconic leaders. As an interviewer/host, he created a YouTube interview series, Iconic Voices, now co-produced by @Thunderbird, featuring mega moguls from Warren Buffett to JeffImmelt. His articles on leadership have been featured in the Arizona Republic, LinkedIn and Medium via JeffCunningham.com. 

His career experience includes publisher of Forbes Magazine; founder of Directorship Magazine; CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk), Myway.com, and CareerTrack.com; venture partner with Schroders. He serves as a trustee of the McCain Institute and previously as a trustee of CSIS and Middle East Institute, and as an advisor to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. 

He has also been a board director of 10 public companies.