The Boardroom Gender Problem is a Career Opportunity for Women

The Boardroom Gender Problem is a Career Opportunity for Women 150 150 C-Suite Network


Worldwide underrepresentation of women on corporate boards has been a long-time concern, but in the past few years it seems to have hit a tipping point. So as a female board seeker, how does this apply to your personal goal of joining a board (and the networking required to get there)?

The “clubbiness” that makes board recruitment a challenge for everyone brings a double whammy for women. The male incumbents who make up most board nominating committees still focus on folks they know from other board settings — who, unsurprisingly, are other male incumbents. In short, women don’t get invited into the boardroom boys’ club because they aren’t already there.

Bobbi Liebenberg, a partner with the Fine, Kaplan & Black law firm in Philadelphia, chairs the new DirectWomen group, which specializes in helping female attorneys break into the boardroom. She suggests the usual tactic of contacting headhunters — but “focus on those who specialize in board placements in the specific industry and region you’re targeting.” Local boutique firms may have stronger connections with your bulls-eye. (For even better targeting, research which firms have the most success at placing women candidates.)

Susan Stautberg heads the PartnerCom advisory board firm in New York, and offers two smart networking tips for women. First, let your network contacts know that you’re specifically looking to “go on a board.” It’s amazing how often you don’t get something because you didn’t make your goals clear.

Second, Susan recommends targeting the circle of women who are already serving on major boards. These are the “usual suspects,” the first names boards go to in seeking a new member. Most are overboarded and say no to added invites. But if you’ve made yourself an acquaintance and impressed them with your boardability, they could say those magic words, “However, I know someone who . . .”

Betsy Atkins is former chair of Clear Standards Inc., CEO of VC firm Baja Corp., and a seasoned director. For women seeking their first break into the boardroom, a classic bit of wisdom still applies. “A really good first step is to get onto nonprofit boards. It’s great background, you’re connected with those on corporate boards, and you gain good learning on how boards really work.”

But Atkins adds a clever twist that makes this tactic even more effective. “The best to start with are health care and hospitals. On hospital boards, you deal with budgets, services, customers, and compliance — all the things corporate boards must handle.” Furthermore, large hospital systems often have a network of subsidiary boards, making it easier to get a foot in the door at your community level.

Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire, a noted attorney, is author of the book, The Board Game: How Smart Women Become Corporate Directors. For her book, she interviewed 58 women directors on their board-hunting strategies. Berkhemer-Credaire found that nonprofits are most effective for board wannabes if you aim for large nonprofits and then focus on specific committees. “Fundraising, strategy, and revenue-generating committees bring recognition — marketing committees less so.” Corporates seeking board talent value strong P&L experience, and serving well on money-related committees with big nonprofits delivers.

Industry association boards are another powerful showcase. Maggie Wilderotter, CEO of Frontier Communications, first broke out when she was leading a small regional cable firm by getting on the board of a national cable TV industry group. “[Wilderotter] says she made over 2000 calls to get on that board,” Berkhemer-Credaire observes.

Such venues are vital because the men who serve on most major corporate boards get too little exposure to top women who aren’t either competitors or employees. So get on their radar by sharing a non-corporate boardroom with them. This brings top-of-mind awareness when they go back to their corporate boards and someone mentions that they need to find savvy women to improve board diversity.

Article written by Ralph Ward
Purchase Ralph’s book, Board Seeker: Your Guidebook and Career Map into the Corporate Boardroom, over on C-Suite Bookclub.