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According to a recent Gender Diversity Report by BoardEx, the average number of women on corporate boards in the United States was 27% in 2019 — up from 19% in 2014.
Amy Kristof-Brown, University of Iowa Tippie College of Business dean, said that even though that’s an improvement, there’s still a long way to go. “At that pace, it would take another 15 years before we had a nice level of balance,” she said.
And there are signs that progress slowed during the pandemic. For example, more than 2 million women left the workforce in 2020, with an as-yet-unknown impact on the number of women on corporate boards. That’s one reason the Tippie College of Business hosted a virtual panel discussion about this topic back in March, moderated by Kristof-Brown. Panelists discussed the benefits of serving on boards, how to find the right board and more.
Kristof-Brown said one reason that more women don’t serve on boards is simple: It’s not commonly discussed.
“We don’t tend to talk about it very much in terms of your career path,” she said.
Even if it’s something you’re thinking about, Kristof-Brown said it can be hard to know where to start, especially if you’re at the beginning of your career. She said the problem is circular. “Boards are a great way to build a professional presence, but if you don’t already have one, nobody is going to come knocking on your door.”
But there are ways to break in. Kristof-Brown said serving on nonprofit boards is a great way to gain experience. (As an added benefit, she said the experience can be personally rewarding, especially if you chose a nonprofit with a mission you believe in.)
Additionally, she said it’s helpful to start thinking about what type of board you’d like to serve on and prepare much like you would for a job interview. “Think about what you bring to the table,” she said.
One of the panelists that spoke during the March event, Janice Reals Ellig, is the CEO of the Ellig Group, a company that matches women and diverse candidates to executive positions and corporate boards. There’s good reason for companies to use services like this to ensure that they have diversity on boards, according to Kristof-Brown. “There’s evidence that when you add even just one woman to your board, a variety of financial indicators improve,” she said.
Although it’s tough to pinpoint an exact reason for this correlation, Kristof-Brown said there are several theories about why this happens. One is that women might be more focused on things like sustainability and diversity — issues many customers care about. Another is that they have insight into what female customers want. “If you have women as customers, having women on your board makes a tremendous about of sense,” Kristof-Brown said.
Or it could simply be that women shed new light on issues companies have to deal with. “More diversity in the room makes for better discussion and problem solving,” Kristof-Brown said. That in itself is reason enough to make an effort to diversify a board. If a company isn’t making this effort, Kristof-Brown said they should prepare for possible scrutiny. “As an investor, I would really want to know the reason why.