Women aspire to for-profit boards

Women_boardsWomen executives on nonprofit boards aspire to serve on for-profit boards, where they are dramatically underrepresented, a new survey says.

Though 51 percent of corporate managers in the U.S. are women, they represent only 15 percent of corporate board members at big publicly-traded U.S. companies, according to a Simmons School of Management poll of 500 women managers and executives at their 2007 leadership conference in Boston.

Of the 61 percent who said they serve on either formal or informal boards, the majority were on nonprofit boards.

Only 11 percent of female members of formal boards served on for-profit boards.

Recent research from Catalyst, a nonprofit advisory organization focusing on women and business, shows that Fortune 500 firms with more women board members have higher returns on equity and sales than other companies

Many firms say they would like to have more women on their boards, but that the pool of qualified women is “too small,” according to the Simmons School survey.

These organizations simply need to change their search procedures, the study concludes, and women seeking for-profit board membership need to develop a concrete recruitment plan.

“Successful businesswomen who are active in governance and leadership positions in organizations have a proven track record of competence, the same as men,” Patricia Deyton, a study author and director of the Center for Gender in Organizations at the Simmons School of Management, says in a statement.

“But too often, they aren’t put into the pool of qualified candidates for membership on larger, for-profit boards,” she says.

Of the women surveyed, nearly half of formal board members served as chair of at least one board, and 40 percent of the women who were not on a board but aspired to for-profit board membership held executive-level positions of chief operating officer or higher.

These women, as well as women entrepreneurs and those just below the top corporate ranks, exhibit leadership qualities that might not be recognized by a traditional board search.

The Simmons School survey suggests that in addition to expanding criteria for determining who is “qualified,” organizations seeking women board members should look for women on the boards of effective nonprofits or smaller corporate boards and use women executives or board members to network with potential candidates.

Women seeking a for-profit board position should cultivate contacts, become visible in professional or community organizations, hone their expertise, and volunteer, the study says.

Starting early on the board of a small, local company or nonprofit is also a good way to get one’s feet wet.

The Boston-based Simmons School of Management says it is the only business school in the U.S. designed for women.

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