Friday, September 17, 2010

Closing the Gender Gap

I am just back from Washington, D.C., where I took part in a most enlightening conference. Themed "Closing the Gender Gap: Global Perspectives on Women in the Boardroom," the daylong program held on Thursday, Sep. 16, was filled with experts from the corporate, diplomatic and academic sectors from around the world — all of them influential in tracking trends in board diversity and even moving the trendline along for increased presence of women on boards.

As a member of the opening panel in the morning, I had the pleasure of sharing with the audience some of the newsworthy data from the Directors & Boards Directors Roster, our quarterly and annual reviews of new appointments to corporate boards.

Actually, SEC Commissioner Luis Aguilar beat me to the punch. He launched the day with a keynote address in which he cited some of our Roster data in his compelling tribute to the value of board diversity and review of what the SEC is doing to move the needle in making it happen.

The key stat that both the Commissioner and I conveyed was that 39% of board recruits in 2009 were women. That represented a big ramping up from the 25% rate of women as new board recruits in both 2008 and 2007 — and a tripling from the 13% rate of women named to boards that we tracked in the first year of collecting this Roster data, which was 1994.

One reason 39% is a figure worthy of note is that much of the conference centered on analyzing the impressive experience underway in Norway, which legislated a gender balance on boards mandate of 40%. We are not anywhere near that in the U.S., so I did have to temper the enthusiasm over the Roster data by admitting that even a continuing 39% rate of new women directors does not get us anytime soon to a state when women hold 40% of U.S. corporate board seats.

Nonetheless, the Roster holds hope that a progressive trend is in place. We are still maintaining an elevated state of new women directors so far in 2010: In this year's first quarter, the rate was 34%, and in the second quarter (being announced here for the first time), the rate was 36%. (As a representative new woman director elected in Q2, pictured is Christine McCarthy, EVP of corporate finance and real estate and treasurer of Walt Disney Co., who joined the board of FM Global, a commercial and industrial property insurer with $5 billion in revenue.)

Kudos to Susan Ness, senior fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University. She brilliantly organized and chaired the "Closing the Gender Gap" conference, which was held at SAIS. If we can keep the Roster (i.e., free market activity) data in an upward trajectory, keep the SEC providing its big-stick backing for board diversity, and keep having impressive consciousness-raising programs like this SAIS conference trumpeting the value that women bring to boards, we are bound to show progress in closing the gender gap in the boardroom.