Debunking The Argument There Aren’t Enough Women for Boards

by Coco Brown, Athena Alliance founder & CEO

The argument, “we just can’t find ‘qualified women’ to serve on our board,” is nothing new, but honestly I am surprised how much I continue to hear it. It is trite, so last century and, most importantly, not true.

What is the definition of “qualified”? Must the pool be composed of current public company CEOs? If that’s the case, you’ll likely find significantly fewer men as well, as there is a shrinking pool of publicly traded male CEOs who can or want to serve on boards. In addition, research busts the myth that sitting CEOs are the best directors. Despite the fact that sitting CEOs are highly sought-after for board seats, 79% of directors in a Stanford study said that, “in practice, active CEOs are no better than non-CEO board members.” So empirically, that non-CEO executive woman you know is just as qualified to serve as a board director as any CEO on the docket, possibly even more. And historically, less than 30% of board members are or were CEOs.

Research busts the myth that sitting CEOs are the best directors.

The average large board adds fewer than two members per year. With such limited turnover, boards often seek out what has become known as a “unicorn” board member, ultimately a board member who cannot be found due to excessive requirements. For example, a board seeks a minority woman who is a current CEO or CFO, with digital and global growth experience and IT/cyber experience, who has been on a public company board and brings age diversity. For younger companies, add to that list someone who has also grown the company and taken it public. There’s a reason this candidate is called a unicorn. You’d be just as likely to find either.

Women with CFO/financial expert criteria have been one of the first segments many boards have added over the last decade and still appeal to many boards for audit committee chairs and members. Increasingly, board members who have a firm grasp on the use of Big Data, AI, cybersecurity and overall business uses for IT, appear to be the next wave of women in high demand. The Athena Alliance network of highly qualified women is certainly acquainted with this nominee, as is obvious in the 2017 award honorees we’ve listed here.

There are many women in the corporate arena who also have high level legal backgrounds with savvy business skills, and can provide incredible value for companies aiming to grow via acquisition or facing high risk in their regulatory environment, like disruptive companies need to address.

For that matter, what about board members who understand what it takes to grow the employee number from a small operation to a large, global industry over a short period of time? CEOs don’t usually come with this skill set, and most internal HR teams don’t have that kind of in-house experience, so having guidance from someone who has done this is a great asset — and yes, many CHRO are female. I just heard at a board event from a speaker who sits on five public boards, that the Comp Committee for a public company has been said to be more a risky assignment than the Audit Committee today.

“The excuse by some U.S. companies that they aren’t able to find enough qualified women in their own backyard just doesn’t hold water.”

A FastCompany article noted that many European companies have begun to tap into networks of U.S. female executives and add them to their own corporate boards. Susan Adams, author of the article, concluded “The excuse by some U.S. companies that they aren’t able to find enough qualified women in their own backyard just doesn’t hold water.” At Athena Alliance, we agree, because we know amazing executive women qualified to serve on boards if given the opportunity. Resist the urge to use this excuse, and instead take action to reach out in search of connected women beyond your network. We are ready, willing and able to connect you with our own network of highly educated, highly successful, board-ready women.

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