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In the land of Google and Facebook, diversity is worshipped everywhere but the boardroom

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” — Albert Einstein

When a company is added to the S&P 500, it is like being drafted by the major leagues. Warren Buffett, for one, invests in the S&P 500 because he sees it as a perfect microcosm of the entire economy.

If you discover women represent only 21% of boards of directors on the list, that sounds more like a microcosm of the local sports tavern. And when you examine the companies more closely, you may be surprised by some of the biggest gender offenders.

Take Google

The search engine giant isn’t reticent about advocating diversity, especially on the engineering floor. That’s for ‘the little people.’ Higher up, on billionaires row, the male status quo is safe. That is why, 19 years after the company was founded, Google’s board is 77% male, the executive committee is a male trio, and the four senior officers are a male quartet.

In the Google orchestra, women play second fiddle.

Facebook is not much better

When the company went public in 2012, angry protesters decried the company’s lack of women on the board. Mark Zuckerberg soon announced Sheryl Sandberg, a stunningly qualified woman, would be its first and only female. But why did it take four years and why did he choose a subordinate whose salary he pays, when he could have also added a second independent female director?

Google and Facebook are like the Wizard of Oz, don’t look behind that curtain.

When gender rules are for ‘them not us’, it leads to dissent or in some cases, radicalization. Is it any wonder James Damore’s diversity memo sent Google into a social media meltdown? The facts of the memo have been hotly debated, but the ruckus was due to Google’s clumsy response — they fired the engineer instead of dealing with the issue.

Same song, same dance

Since 1972, when Katherine Graham was named the first female CEO and director of a Fortune 500 company, boards say they want to vastly increase the number of women. Yes, really.

Based on the GAO’s or Government Accounting Office findings, it’s not happening. At our current rate, it will take until 2057, and Elon Musk will be holding a board meeting on Mars and we will be asking where are the women on Earth’s boards?

Go forth

This isn’t a ‘go girl’ program, it is a life changer. The problem is multi-factor (see my second part on the media’s role) and there won’t be a one step solution to the problem. We must start, however, and the prescription needs to be bold and simple.

The first problem is proper training for the boardroom. Otherwise, we cull from former CEOs, which is how we got to where we are now. During times of war, the country created “90 day wonders” or officers trained to become fighting machines in a span of months. They won the War, by the way.

We can do the same for the boardroom. Let’s call it the Board Corps, modeled after the Peace Corps. The purpose is to train aspiring women (broaden it to all demographic groups, just keep the balance issues in mind) to learn how to conduct business in a multi gender and ethnic society. We need people of both genders with global eyes and ears to advise the directors inside the boardroom.

We also need to broaden the ‘spec’ that keeps many qualified women out of the boardroom by starting with diverse global backgrounds. Look beyond the Ivy League elite, where women have careers identical to the men, and the result is sameness in a different outfit.

Then, make sure to ask Congress and the State attorneys general to tamp down on a plaintiff bar disagreeably attached to litigation against boards. Rather than fighting for shareholders, they turn board directors into change fearing automatons. The plaintiff bar enriches itself because they tithe the very politicians who support their legal extortion. That has to stop.

Finally, we need boards of directors with a bias towards action, because our problem isn’t lack of will, it is lack of urgency.

See my other two parts of this story for a sense of the real challenges and a possible structure that will solve the problem.

Part II (media’s problem)

Part III (a global solution)

Author’s Bio

Jeff Cunningham 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.