Skip to this page's content

Survey: Many Women Aspire to For-Profit Board Membership

Simmons School of Management Advises Ways to Increase Gender Equity on Boards

BOSTON (March 31, 2008) — Many women executives who currently serve on non-profit boards of directors actively aspire to serve on for-profit boards — where women currently are dramatically underrepresented — according to a survey released today by the Simmons School of Management in Boston.

But survey authors say that the growing number of organizations who want more women board members need to change their traditional search procedures. And women who aspire to board membership need to develop a concrete plan to be recruited.

Those are some of the key findings of an online survey of more than 500 successful women managers and executives from around the nation with an average of 20 years' work experience, who attended the 2007 Simmons School of Management Leadership Conference in Boston. The Simmons School of Management and HP, a lead conference sponsor, conducted the survey.

Women comprise 51 percent of the U.S. managerial work force, but less than 15 percent of board membership of large, publicly traded U.S. corporations — despite research by Catalyst research and advisory organization showing that Fortune 500 firms with more women board members outperform those with very few women, on such measures as return on equity and return on sales.

Many companies today say they want to increase female representation on their boards, but that the pool of qualified women is small. To check that assumption, the Simmons School of Management surveyed professional women about their experiences and aspirations in organizational leadership outside their primary work responsibilities — including formal and informal boards, advisory groups, and other governing bodies.

The survey found that 61 percent of respondents participate in either formal or informal boards, with the majority of formal board experience involving non-profit organizations; only 11 percent of respondents served on for-profit boards. Nearly half of those who served on formal boards (46 percent) served as a board chair, indicating a high level of leadership engagement.

One-third of those who had not served on a board (34 percent) sought seats in for-profit companies, while 36 percent were interested in non-profit boards, and the remainder in private foundation or government boards. Almost half of those interested in the corporate sector (40 percent) held executive-level position of COO or higher, suggesting they had potentially valuable experience to offer companies in their industry.

The majority of the women surveyed said they want to serve on formal boards; more than half the women (56 percent) who had never served on a formal board desired to do so, and 75 percent who had formal board experience said they wanted to continue or expand their board service.

"Successful businesswomen who are active in governance and leadership positions in organizations have a proven track record of competence, the same as men—good judgment, thoughtfulness, relevant experience, and the ability to ask good questions." said Patricia Deyton, a study author and director of the Center for Gender in Organizations based at the Simmons School of Management.

"But too often, they aren't put into the pool of qualified candidates for membership on larger, for-profit boards. Those numerous organizations who say they're having a difficult time finding qualified female board members need to widen the pool and expand their criteria."

Survey authors recommend three key steps for organizations that are seeking more women board members:

  • Change existing procedures for conducting board searches; identify the pool of women executives whose governance in effective non-profit organizations demonstrates good judgment. "Ask who don't we know, instead of who do we know?" says Deyton.
  • Expand the criteria by which potential board members are deemed to be qualified. For example, the report said, successful women entrepreneurs offer executive experience even if they don't have the same issues facing large public companies. And women just below the top corporate ranks may have knowledge and experience about their own companies that would make them effective inside directors of those firms.
  • Speak to women about possible service. Female members of large for-profits may need only to network with their counterparts on smaller and/or non-profit boards to find qualified women.

The survey authors recommend that women who aspire to board membership cultivate a network of contacts, become visible in professional and community organizations, develop leadership and business expertise including financial knowledge and acumen, volunteer for local non-profits that match their interest, and begin early in their careers to serve on smaller local boards or non-profits.

The women surveyed who aspired to board membership recognized there are actions they could take to increase their chances. They identified top priorities as social network building (88 percent), self-promotion (61 percent), and career progression (56 percent). Two-thirds of board aspirants said they had begun developing their social networks, and more than half were working to improve their qualifications for board membership through developing useful skills and advancing their careers.

Study authors were Deyton and Simmons School of Management faculty members Paul Myers, Mindy Nitkin, Hugh Colaco, and Indra Guertler. Click here for a complete look at the study.

The Simmons School of Management, the nation's only business school designed for women's leadership success, is a leading authority on women, leadership and management. HP is a technology solutions provider to consumers, businesses and institutions globally.