Only 19% of corporate board of directors seats are filled by women. With our friends at The Board Connection, we asked our executive network why it’s important to increase this number and how to do it.
Editor’s Note: According to a recent study by our friends at The Board Connection, only 19% of corporate board of directors seats are filled by women. This is an improvement from years past, but corporations have significant room for improvement when it comes to gender diversity in the boardroom. 7% still have no female board members. For additional statistics and insight, we encourage you to read the conclusions of the study on The Board Connection website.
We sought out executives who were either serving on corporate boards or aspire to do so, to create discussion around this topic. This Q&A is with Rachel Gervin – SVP, General Counsel, Sage Software, Inc. Please follow this link to see all the responses in the series.
Forefront Magazine: The mission of TBC is to develop and prepare women for public company board seats. Why do you aspire to serve on the board for a public company?
Rachel Gervin: I believe I have a lot to offer and a lot to learn. My background in private law practice for large firms advising companies in many different industries as well as my years as an in house attorney for a large international technology company have exposed me to many business, legal, regulatory and other matters. I have developed the ability to quickly assess situations and advise on the best course of action. I am also a mother, wife, girl scout troop leader, a runner and an active volunteer and supporter of many community based organizations. I believe my overall experience positions me well to broaden the perspective of a public company board. I am also at the point in my career where I need to think outside of the norm for in house lawyers in order to truly expand and grow my skill set and experience. I have reached the pinnacle of my career for in house legal work (as I am in the top job for my field) and I am also the chapter president for the in house bar organization (and I will be termed out of leadership after next year.) But I am only 45 years old! There is so much more that I want to do with my career and so much more I want to learn. I imagine working with a smart, talented, experienced board would be a great building block for the next phase of my career.
FM: Why is gender diversity important for corporate boards?
RG: I think all types of diversity (racial, gender, religious, age, cultural, geographic) are important to the ultimate success of any organization. For many publicly traded companies, the employee and customer bases have become increasingly more diverse over the past 10-15 years. In order to keep a happy and productive workforce and to most efficiently market and sell goods and services to existing customers and attract new customers, it is important to have a leadership team that reflects the changes in the market. I think you just appear stale, outdated and out of touch otherwise.
FM: What is the biggest reason you believe that there are not more women on corporate boards?
RG: I think historically placements for openings on corporate boards have been made by word of mouth to friends and colleagues of existing board members. There have not been as many women in executive positions and therefore we don’t tend to come to mind for the “friends and colleagues” phone calls for openings.
FM: Have you explored or pursued any corporate board opportunities?
RG: I have not pursued any corporate board opportunities as of yet.
FM: Even though progress is being made how can further steps be taken to address board gender diversity?
RG: I have seen many organizations over the past few years geared towards developing and preparing more women executives for board seats. I think as those efforts gain momentum and the pipeline of interested and eligible women executives continues to grow, we will start to see more improvement. Also, as the number of women in the top 3 executive positions in fortune 500 companies improves, that will likely impact women on board seats through the same “friends and colleagues” theory as mentioned above.
FM: Does this require a change in mindset? A change in company/board culture?
RG: I think the idea that men need a mindset shift and/or companies need a culture shift in order to accommodate an increase in the number of women on boards is a bit of a red herring. Men have known and openly acknowledged for many years that their wives, daughters, and women colleagues and mentees/mentors are smarter, more prepared, and more organized than the men. They went to school with us (and at least in law schools, we have made up more than 50% of the graduating classes for over 20 years), participated in trade organizations with us and volunteered with us on non-profit boards and community/religious organizations for many years. Although I am sure there are still occasions where men prefer not to have a 1:1 dinner meeting with a woman colleague or prefer not to travel alone with a woman colleague, I do believe the days where men expect a woman to take the notes and bring the coffee are fading into folklore. If my assumption is incorrect, that is all the more reason to support and expand initiatives like this!
FM: What type of resources or assistance would you like to receive that might prepare you to serve on a corporate board?
RG: I am sure that I don’t know what I don’t know, but I think I would want to know more about what is expected of board members. I would love to meet current and former board members (women and men) and hear the types of issues they are asked to be involved with and specifically what they are asked to do ( counsel and advise; set direction; or merely ask questions and trust but verify the decisions made by the company’s executive team). I would love to shadow a board member (under a confidentiality agreement) or at least participate in some sort of mock board meeting exercise to get a feel for the role. I imagine the role of a board member being very different than any of the many other leadership hats I have worn (which is part of what I find so intriguing about it.)