Mary Beckerle began her career in a lab studying cell movement. She worked up through the ranks of academia and research and eventually made her way to the boardroom. She now serves as chief executive of the Huntsman Cancer Institute and as a director for a number of associations including Huntsman Corp., where she’s been a board member since 2011.
Beckerle credits her fellow board members for “being broad thinkers” and making her “feel very comfortable.” But the fact is, she’s the only woman on an 11-member board at Huntsman.
“I’ve been a practicing scientist for 35 years and that environment has completely shifted in terms of women being well-represented in leadership,” Beckerle said. “But I don’t think the corporate world has caught up.”
Even as more women are engaged in the workforce, women holding board positions are few and far between. Worldwide, 11 percent of corporate board positions are held by women, according to a 2013 report by GMI Ratings. An analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune shows that women occupy just 7.4 percent of board seats for the publicly traded companies on the Bloomberg Utah Index.
That’s a shame, says Susan Madsen, a professor of management at Utah Valley University who studies women and leadership.
“There’s a leak in the pipeline,” Madsen said. “More women are graduating from college than men … but people drop out along the way. [Women] say ‘no’ early to offers and a lot of times women just don’t step up unless someone taps them on the shoulder.”
Why the dearth? • In the U.S., the percentage of women on boards has increased less than 2 percent since 2009 and there are several theories why women haven’t made greater gains on corporate boards. One is that the issue isn’t even on the radar of many CEOs and senior managers. They unconsciously enlist close business friends or schoolmates who tend to be like them: male.
Others surmise that many corporate executives don’t know where to find qualified women, where “qualified” means fellow chief executives.
Beckerle says that definition needs to be broadened.
“About 64 percent of independent directors are CEOs or other executives,” she said. “Everybody’s looking for board members from that strata and it sort of disadvantages companies when they only have that perspective.”
But if a top executive is what a board is looking for, women with those credentials are out there. The Women’s Business Institute at Salt Lake Community College set out to aid corporations that were looking for women board candidates when it launched an online registry for women leaders in 2009, says Karen Gunn, associate provost for economic development at SLCC.
“The goal of that project is to increase the visibility of women for board and commission work, to educate the larger community about the benefits of women serving in leadership and board positions,” Gunn said.
While 227 women are currently listed on the registry and they’ve had some success in placing women on boards, Gunn says the resource is “not being used as often as we’d like.” She says the college is currently revamping the website to improve the outreach tool.
“Talk to me in a month,” she said.
Why does it matter? • Stormy Simon joined Overstock.com when the online retailer was just 2 years old. She rose from an entry-level position to become the company’s current co-president and she is one of two women on Overstock’s six-member board.
She says having women in top-level discussions matters because men and women are fundamentally different.
“Our minds work differently,” she said. “I’m emotional, passionate, tenacious, I speak a lot. Those are qualities that I bring that maybe a male wouldn’t bring.”
And those inherent differences along with a range of opinions and experiences can remind other board members of the needs of a diverse, global customer base. Mark Bonham, a partner with SageCreek Partners, sits on the board of SolarWinds Inc., a publicly-traded software company, with Ellen Simonoff, an entrepreneur and former senior vice president of Yahoo.
He says Simonoff “occasionally” voices reminders.
“She’ll raise her hand and say, ‘Be sensitive to this,’ ” Bonham said. “She’ll say, ‘There’s a constituency you need to pay attention to.’ I don’t think of her so much a feminist as a good director.”
And some research concludes that kind of input helps a company’s bottom line. A report by Credit Suisse Research Institute showed that over a six-year period, companies with at least one woman on their board saw a boost in their share prices.
How can women prepare for board service? • UVU management professor Madsen says educating companies that there are competent women willing and ready to serve is the first step to boosting female representation as company directors.
“You’ve got to make people aware,” she said.
Feeling confident in a core area of expertise and networking in professional organizations can open doors, adds Beckerle with the Huntsman Cancer Institute. And Overstock’s Simon says women can’t just wait for the invitation; they need to let people know they’re interested and ready for board service.
“It’s somewhat up to them, too,” Simon said.
However they do it, companies need to realize that women are a key component to their business’s success, says SLCC provost Gunn.
“Without the added element of diversity at policymaking decision points, it will be very difficult for a company to adapt and compete in today’s global environment,” Gunn said.