By Kate Morrissey
When Victoria Medvec heard a recent Catalyst report about the small percentage of women on corporate boards, she had one question, “Who are they?”
She wanted to call the two companies in Illinois that had no women.
Medvec, the executive director for the Kellogg Center for Executive Women at Northwestern University, said companies that include women on their boards end up with a higher quality board because they are pulling from a larger talent pool that includes greater diversity in experience and perspective. The center offers leadership workshops to executive-minded women and keeps a database of attendees to help board searches find qualified women.
“Boards are losing a lot of quality when they don’t open it up to women,” Medvec said. “Whether you need somebody who has experience in certain countries or people who have experience with a certain kind of distribution, you’re just more likely to get that experience if you tap the full talent pool than if you cut women out of it.”
According to the most recent Catalyst report, which used data from October 2014 based on Standard & Poor’s 500 index, two Illinois companies, CF Industries Holdings Inc. and Stericycle Inc., had no women on their boards.
Shortly after Catalyst researchers gathered their data, CF Industries added one woman to its board, but Stericycle’s board remains without a woman member. Stericycle board members were unavailable to comment prior to publication.
Rachel Soares, the director of research for Catalyst, said previous research studies at her organization show quantitative benefits to having more women on corporate boards.
“There is a correlation between having more women as your directors and leadership with important business outcomes in a financial business case but also in a broader, corporate social responsibility way: how much money a company donates or their corporate social performance overall,” Soares said.
For Medvec, as well as Catalyst researchers, the shrinking count of companies with no women on their boards has led to a growing concern that one is the new zero.
“Companies will put a woman on the board and kind of check their list,” Medvec said. “Then the companies will remain off the radar screen.”
Based on the board member listings for Illinois S&P 500 companies in January, 32 percent, or nine of the 28 companies, have only one woman serving on boards ranging in size from nine to 24 members.
Illinois has the largest percentage of boards with zero women or one woman compared to states with similar counts of S&P 500 companies. While it had a comparatively large percentage of boards composed of at least 25 percent women when Catalyst researchers gathered their data, the boards have since changed, and Illinois now has the second smallest percentage.
Brande Stellings, vice president of Catalyst, said she hears fewer questions about why having women on boards is important and more about how to make it a reality.
“Hopefully at this day and age, when people look at the population of the corporate board, I think they want to see the talent pool and the marketplace reflected,” Stellings said. “When they look at the board and see zero women on it, it makes people ask what’s wrong with this picture.”
The Kellogg Center for Executive Women, according to Medvec, teaches women to speak up about their goals to help them get considered.
“We know that most board searches are not filled by search firms; most are filled by word of mouth,” Medvec said. “Women just don’t get considered. People will often say, ‘Oh, she’s really busy.’ We tell women it’s important to be clear in articulating that interest to people in your network.”
Stellings said adding women to their boards should become a corporate priority.
“I’ve heard other chairs of boards say gender diversity is not hard if you’re committed to it,” Stellings said. “When leaders and companies set an intention and a goal, then it happens.”
For Soares, that means everyone still has work to do.
“No matter what industry you’re in or what region you’re in, you have a very far distance to go before we reach that critical parity point,” Soares said, referring to an overall goal of boards that are split evenly between men and women.