September 2021 | 

Women on Boards: Succeeding as a Director

Board Seats for Women Executives: Who Will Get Them?

If you ask someone to picture a corporate board, they’ll probably imagine a long conference table full of directors in suits — all of them men. That traditional image isn’t far off: among the largest 500 public U.S. companies by revenue, only about a quarter of board members are female, according to Reuters. NPR reports that at the largest 3,000 public U.S. companies, it’s only one in five, and nearly one in 10 of those boards have no women directors at all.

The situation appears to be changing, though, partly due to legislation that’s turning up the heat on boards that lack gender diversity. The first law requiring a gender quota on boards, passed in 2018 in California, has resulted in publicly traded California companies nearly doubling the number of female board directors. Wharton management professor Mary-Hunter McDonnell notes that a “handful of other states” have similar legislation pending. And additional states, while not going as far as quotas, are considering mandating disclosure of board diversity.

The upshot of all this, according to McDonnell, is that as many as 6,000 new board seats could soon become available to women in the U.S. in the near future. Moreover, she says, board gender diversity mandates have been passed in many European countries, and some Asian nations are feeling pressure to do likewise. So for senior-level female executives aspiring to public board service, there are big opportunities in the offing.

To help women executives seize those opportunities, McDonnell has designed the new program Women on Boards: Building Exceptional Leaders. She says the program’s goal is to “prepare this generation of women to fill the board seats that are about to flood the market. We're going to empower our participants to find their seat, to market themselves to boards, and to be an effective board member.”

An important step in getting noticed by boards is building your personal brand, according to McDonnell. She plans to convey how to strategically deploy social media, choose the right speaking engagements, and construct a powerful network. She will offer in-depth guidance for participants to polish their board bio, CV, and LinkedIn profile. The idea is to become a recognized expert in your field so that boards will seek you out.

Cultivating relationships with existing board members will be discussed. But participants will also learn how to market themselves to other key players such as nomination committees, search firms, consulting firms, and external counsel. These roles are becoming increasingly important as boards face pressure to assemble broader, more diverse pools of candidates, McDonnell says.

Participants will learn the key questions to ask when considering a board seat and how to identify the boards that are the right fit for them. Compensation will be covered too. “We’ll talk about the ways in which you are compensated, and what kinds of packages you should advocate for when you are negotiating that initial board seat,” McDonnell says.

McDonnell also aims to prepare women executives to assume the obligations and duties of their first public board seat. She says she will explore how directors execute their monitoring responsibilities and how they spot red flags when executing core board duties like compensation and succession. “Also, we're going to have sessions designed to help you navigate the politics and culture of a board,” she noted. “So, how to make yourself a voice that's heard, recognized, and effective in the boardroom.”

What career stage makes you most likely to get selected for a board seat today? “When it comes to age in particular, I think we're really in an ‘anything goes’ moment,” McDonnell observes. “Firms are increasingly looking for retired people because they have more time to dedicate. But at the same time, a lot of firms are looking for younger board members because they understand that the technological threats facing firms are not [necessarily] well understood by people who didn't grow up with the technology.”

In addition to offering practical tools and techniques for winning a board seat, and boosting people’s confidence and knowledge about board service, the program is likely to have a strong appeal to women executives who wish to meet and network with other high-level executives.

Overall, McDonnell says, “This is a program that's going to help people feel armed to find opportunities and to maximize their odds of being selected for board service.”

“Programs like Women on Boards: Building Exceptional Leaders are critical for promoting diversity that can help organizations succeed,” says Wharton School Dean Erika James who will also be teaching in the program. “What enables businesses to be competitive and innovative is the bringing together of unique perspectives, ideas, and experiences to help solve problems and challenges. That is what this program seeks to achieve, and why I believe it is so valuable to the industry.”