How We'll Finally Get More Women On Corporate Boards

Glass ceilings are being broken around the world, but nowhere is the glass more durable than the corporate boardroom in the United States, where fewer than 20% of the board members are women (16% for Fortune 500 companies). We hear about the progress in European countries, where "pink quotas" mandate percentages of women serving as corporate directors. But in the U.S., we hear little about women being named as directors, or about the intent of corporate America to be more inclusive or acknowledge the value of engaging more women. 

In America, business is still a man's game at the top, but women are using their climbing shoes. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has some thoughts in her new book about how women need to approach business success, rely on their strengths, and promote themselves. And we soon may be hearing more about inclusiveness in the boardroom from Harvard MBA students who will study and then make recommendations for tackling the issue.   

Harvard Business School Professor Boris Groysberg, who researches what drives individual and organizational performance (now with a gender issue focus), will teach a new MBA course this year called "How Star Women Succeed: Leading Effective Careers and Organizations." Dealing with gender disparity in the boardroom, students will explore a career path of an average woman, look at how companies approach creating a diverse and qualified board, and then study legislation mandating quotas, tackling various approaches including the do-nothing method of the United States.  Will they choose quotas, education, or find a better solution to the problem?

With researcher Deborah Bell, Groysberg conducted a survey with anonymous input from 1067 corporate directors in 58 countries. In responses related to economics and politics between genders and nationalities, Groysberg said, "It was almost as if the respondents had one voice." Men and women gave different reasons for the low and stagnant percentage of women on boards. Men felt that it was due to the lack of women in executive ranks. Women reported that there are plenty of female leaders, but the male-dominated board chairs, nominating committees and leadership groups stood in their way. 

It seems logical that if men aren't even aware of the number of qualified women in executive ranks, and they are the ones who control the nominating process, then part of the solution is to make them more aware. Some of the organizations working on that include Catalyst, the 30% Coalition, 20/20 Women on Boards, and WomenCorporateDirectors.

In an assessments of boards, Groysberg and Bell found that female board members had far more operational experience on resumes than men, and the majority had actively sought their seats. Male members did not. Could it be that the women who do get board seats must be self-identified superwomen?

Quota discussions rarely touch on the value women bring to the board. The world's best performing companies, according to a study by Eversheds, an international law firm, tend "to have a higher percentage of female directors." A study by Credit Suisse Research Institute, of 2,400 companies over six years, found that companies with at least some female board representation outperformed those with no women on the board in terms of share price performance. Women bring value.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and one of the most influential women in global business, claims women's lack of commitment is why so few get to the top of the business world. In Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, available in bookstores in March, Sandberg writes that internalizing "negative messages" that tell us it is wrong to be "outspoken, aggressive and more powerful than men" and "lowering our own expectations of what we can achieve" are among the reasons we hold ourselves back.  

Anne-Marie Slaughter, of "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" fame, complained that women in the generation behind us are comparing themselves with "genuine superwomen." 

"Consider Sandberg herself, who graduated with the prize given to Harvard's top student of economics," said Slaughter. "These women cannot possibly be the standard against which even very talented professional women should measure themselves." 

Slaughter suggests more practical measures to help women combine career and family life. Sandberg takes the tougher approach of telling us to act more the part if we want to play, and suggests employers and employees share more open communication about the challenges of the childbearing years for women executives. Her book promises to share some reasons why men rule in American business and what women with ambition need to do about it.

It seems that there is something to both arguments. Some women may be intimidated by superwomen like Sandberg and fall into the trap of comparatively lowering expectations for themselves, because for now, although women hold almost 50% of the jobs in the workforce, few women get board seats and those that rise to the top are the super performers.  

More courses like Professor Boris Groysberg's at Harvard, where students can examine the issue and report their results, may help change some viewpoints. But, of course, the viewpoints of people getting Harvard MBAs are those of super-performers who are unlikely to be overlooked for board seats down the road.