Breaking the mold

Corporate board seats have traditionally been filled by white males. While this reality is changing, the process is slow. Catalyst, a New York research group focusing on women and leadership, reports that females held 14.7 percent of Fortune 500 company board seats in 2005, which is a slight increase over 13.6 percent in 2003. Women of color hold only 3.4 percent of all Fortune 500 board seats. The same research shows that one in nine of these corporate boards have no female representatives at all.

The good news is that opportunities abound and seats can be gained by women, says Diane S. McNulty, Ph.D., associate dean of external affairs for the University of Texas at Dallas School of Management, which will host a three-day residential program on this topic in November. However, she notes, board selection committees nationwide find that seeking qualified women to fill key positions on boards of directors can be a difficult task.

“Outstanding women candidates are out there. However, women leaders need to improve their visibility – and, often, their strategies and skills <m> to become successful board candidates,” says McNulty.

Smart Business spoke with McNulty on how today’s business women can best improve their visibility and skills to prepare themselves for leadership on corporate boards.


What is the reason that comparatively few women sit on corporate boards?
Studies show that several factors tend to hold women back. In general, women lack significant general management experience. Research reveals that women are often excluded from informal communications networks and male bonding experiences in the workplace. Cultural factors, such as stereotyping, play a role in decisions regarding the adequacy of preparation for females in leadership roles. Perceptions of women’s traditional roles and abilities also contribute to a general corporate environment that stifles the advancement of women to the C-level and thus to the board room.


How does having women on corporate boards improve or enhance the board’s effectiveness?
Current research does not address board effectiveness in regard to female representation. However, women do have certain attributes that could earn them increased recognition as valuable board leaders.

Women tend to hone their social skills better than men. They are able to multi-task and balance responsibilities. Females tend to be better team builders than their male counterparts, and this skill is essential for success in today’s global corporate environment. Women are also the great communicators, and for many communicating and relationship problem-solving seems to come more naturally.

My own research finds that some companies actually seek females for board representation because women are their best customers and boards appreciate the input women can provide on products and services.


How can women improve their visibility to become successful board candidates?
A candidate can take a number of steps to improve her chances for success. First, to get solid board experience, she can serve on nonprofit or advisory boards or boards of private, midsize companies. Along these same lines, she should join professional organizations. Becoming active and volunteering to speak at functions will raise her visibility.

Networking is key! Networking expands the candidate’s spheres of influence outside the corporate walls. She should join business networking organizations, chambers of commerce and other organizations in the community and volunteer for committee work. This helps her develop a broad reputation for doing good work. She should seek other women leaders as mentors. And she should make sure that board members and top management are aware that she is interested in a seat on a board.


What specific skills can a woman improve upon to be more effective on a corporate board?
Fortune 500/1000 companies look for a variety of experiences, including financial expertise and industry-relevant experience at top levels. Women also need to seek outside instruction on analyzing and interpreting financial information, if they are weak in this area.

To get a seat on a board and to improve their knowledge about boards, women need to network more with senior business executives. Additionally, women need to learn as much as they can about the actual operations of boards and what responsibilities and liabilities directors have. It is helpful if they gain a perspective of top management and its views of governance.

All these steps will help develop understanding of what a board does, the members’ responsibilities and goals, legal responsibilities and ‘best practices.’


DIANE SEAY McNULTY, Ph.D., is the associate dean of external affairs for the University of Texas at Dallas School of Management. Reach her at (972) 883-4489 or [email protected].