Despite advances, number of women on corporate boards remains relatively stagnant
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In 1975, when Doreen Boyce and Sister Jane Scully were appointed to the boards of directors of major companies, it seemed that a new era had begun for women on corporate boards.
"It was quite a stunning development in the city," said Mrs. Boyce, who joined Duquesne Light's board that year. "Nothing like that had ever been seen before."
But nothing like it has been seen since, either.
Although more than 30 years have passed, the number of women on corporate boards has grown by millimeters instead of leaps and bounds.
"It's a disgrace if we don't see major change before very much longer," said Mrs. Boyce, who is now president of the Buhl Foundation and in 1975 was provost of Chatham College.
The Executive Women's Council, a group of female executives and civic leaders, recently received a grant from the state to try to improve matters locally by compiling a database of qualified women for boards of directors. But while group members are hoping for change, they're not expecting miracles.
"Pittsburgh's been a rather traditional town," said Joan Ellenbogen, president of the council. "We're really just trying to get conversations started."
Nationally, a report by New York-based non-profit group Catalyst pegs the percentage of women on Fortune 500 boards at 14.7 percent, up from 9.6 percent in 1995.
University of Pittsburgh law professor Douglas Branson puts the current number even lower, at 10 percent, because the Catalyst numbers include women who serve on multiple boards.
And in Pittsburgh, a Post-Gazette analysis conducted earlier this year calculated the percentage of women on the boards of local companies at 9 percent.Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette
Click illustration for larger image.
Mr. Branson, who has written a book examining the shortage of women on corporate boards that will be published this fall, calls the problem a "leaky pipeline." While about half of law school graduates and more than one-third of business school graduates entering the work force are women, he said, "there's just a trickle coming out" at the highest executive levels.
Because there aren't many current or retired female CEOs and CFOs, positions that are traditionally the breeding ground for people chosen for a board of directors, there isn't a large pool of women qualified for corporate boards -- or so goes the usual explanation.
Duquesne Light, for example, has tried -- and failed -- to find another woman to appoint to its board for the past 30 years, said Mrs. Boyce. In contrast, the board of Dollar Bank, which she also sits on, has appointed several female members.
Companies that want to name women directors discover that they have to work harder to find them. One popular solution is to find women who have succeeded in academia or at nonprofits, where Mr. Branson said that nearly half of the women on Fortune 1000 boards come from.
Ann Dugan, who helps some regional companies with their board searches as part of her role as executive director of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence at Pitt's Katz School of Business, said that qualified women candidates are out there, if companies are willing to look.
"It takes work," she said. "It's not easy. It's not going to your Rolodex real quick. It's really making the effort to reach out beyond those names that come up all the time."
When Ms. Dugan does board searches, she tries to present them with a slate of candidates that is about half women, and ends up with about a 20 percent success rate getting women into board seats.
David Hoffman, chairman and CEO of executive search company DHR International, said on a recent visit to the company's Pittsburgh office that on each his last 10 searches for corporate board positions, the company had specifically requested a woman.
It's harder to find women not just because of sheer numbers, he said, but because they often wait to be asked, rather than aggressively seeking board seats. "I don't know that women have done a great job positioning themselves for boards compared to men," he said. "They haven't been as proactive."
Men, he said, will often look for board seats as if they were searching for a job, taking pains to let people know that they are interested and taking seats on smaller boards as a stepping stone.
For women who have found board seats on major Pittsburgh companies, the key was indeed a networking contact beyond just their resume. Janice Rennie, who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, and first joined the board of Nova Chemicals in 1990, happened to meet the chairman of the board through her work with the local chamber of commerce.
She joined the board of Nova when she was 34 years old. With many companies seeking women in the last decade and a half, she's now a member of five corporate boards.
Diane Owen, a vice president at Heinz and a member of the board of Green Tree transportation supply company L.B. Foster, acknowledges that when she was asked to join the board in 2002, "I had thought very little about it. I wasn't out there looking for it."
A colleague at Heinz knew that the search committee was looking for a financial expert and recommended her for the position.
Ms. Owen said that serving on a board has been invaluable to gain new perspectives into different aspects of management. As for the lack of other women on the board, while she'd like to see more, she's also accustomed to the realities of the corporate world.
"I grew up with brothers," she said. "I'm used to it."
First Published August 25, 2006 12:00 am