C-Suite: Looking to Become Board Director? Look to the Past

by Dalila-Johari Paul

Bottom line: Companies get a good return when more women are on the board of directors. And when three or more women are at the helm, firms report stronger-than-average performance.

There's also the big elephant in the room:  40 percent of CEOs are failures and most of them are men.
As of 2012, only 14 percent of executive officers at top companies were women.

So, how can more women make it to the C-Suite? According to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, it helps to look to women from the past and assess how things have changed.  "The routes these women took to become directors might provide insight into the pathways that qualified female leaders can pursue today to get on corporate boards for the first time," the authors of a new report suggests.

Researchers studied the business acumen and lives of 35 women who were the first female directors and compared them  with current female board of directors at the top publicly traded companies.

Among the 35 historic figures:

-Natural history writer Ann Zwinger serving on the board of American Electric Power
-Conservationist Doris Leonard on the board of Pacific Gas & Electric.
-Marian Heiskell, sister of New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, was the first female director of both Merck and Ford Motor
-Actress Joan Crawford assumed the director seat of her husband, former Pepsico CEO Alfred Steele, following his death in 1959.
-Civil rights activist Margaret Young also took over the board seat of her husband Whitney Young who was a director at Philip Morris

The first female directors of large public corporations had diverse personal and professional backgrounds. Researchers David Larcker and Brian Tayan found that, compared to their predecessors, twice as many of today’s female board members have had prior executive experience before reaching their current positions. The study’s 35 historic subjects came to corporate leadership after careers in consulting, law, and academia. The authors say that this change reflects “increased professional opportunities in today’s corporations."

The mid-80s saw a shift in women leading, the report found. Authors also report that out of the 68 current respondents, the average company elected its first female director in 1985. That's only 28 years ago, but there is real change from a legal standpoint-- in Europe. In 2003, Norway was the first country to pass a law requiring that all listed company boards be composed of at least 40 percent female directors. Spain and France soon followed. 

Meanwhile, in the U.S., change is still slow. In California, state Sen. Hanna-Beth Jackson, (D-Santa Barbara,)  called for gender parity on corporate boards . By December 2016, the resolution urges California companies with nine or more board seats to have at least three held by women; boards with fewer than five members were urged to name at least one woman.
Let's keep the legislation coming.