A Rare Commodity: Women at the Top

Women at the top executive level are a rare commodity. Why and how do we move forward and change the numbers?

This week, I attended Unlocking a Source of Growth: Women in the Boardroom, hosted by Watermark, an event that sought to answer these very questions. The event was held at the Rancho Cordova headquarters of VSP Global, an international vision care company with several senior women leaders including Chief Marketing Officer Kate Renwick Espinosa and Chief Operating Officer of Vision Care Laurie Costa.

Speakers included Dean Steven Currall of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management; Anne Simpson, senior portfolio manager at CalPERS, the nation’s largest public pension fund; and Debbie Soon, senior vice president of strategy & marketing at Catalyst, the leading national nonprofit membership organization expanding opportunities for women and business.

To frame the issue, Amanda Kimball, author of the UC Davis Study of California Women Business Leaders, shared the findings, which shows that overall, women held only 9.7 percent of board seats and highest-paid executive positions in the 400 largest public companies headquartered in the state. Furthermore, more than one-third of the 400 companies had NO women among their board directors or highest-paid executives.

Most shocking was the observation that at the current rate of growth, it will take 100 years to reach parity—an assessment we at UC Davis find  unacceptable.

The Graduate School of Management is committed to diversity at all levels. The Financial Times recently reported that UC Davis is No. 1 among the top 100 business schools in the world with the highest percentage of female faculty, 42%, which is far above the average of 25.3%. And the School has appointed a new chief diversity officer and launched several initiatives to bring more diverse perspectives and backgrounds into its community.

In addition to the UC Davis findings on California, Catalyst’s Debbie Soon brought a fresh set of data to the table from their 2011 Catalyst Census. It reveals that there are only 35 women CEOs in the Fortune 1000, and only 14% of executive officer positions at these largest public companies are held by women.

Diversity = Return on Investment

Recent research provides evidence that the financial performance of a company with a diverse board is better than those with no diversity in their ranks. Another new Catalyst study, The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards (2004–2008), indicates that sustained gender diversity in the boardroom correlates with better corporate performance, and not by just a little.

Companies with three or more women board directors in four of five years, on average, outperformed companies with zero women board directors ―by 84% return on sales, by 60% return on invested capital, and by 46% return on equity, according to Catalyst’s study.

More diversity on boards creates an opportunity to challenge group-think. CalPERS’ Anne Simpson commented that the recent financial crisis was a grotesque version of emperor with no clothes; right now is a good time to rethink the financial crisis and understand what caused it. The International Monetary Fund issued a conclusion that the origins of the financial crisis were due to group-think, and that group-think on boards is the single most dangerous risk to the international financial system.

What’s the next step for women candidates? 

Throughout our discussion, we came up with a list of actionable items for women to follow to promote themselves to a board seat.

By promoting one another and ourselves, seeking support from influencers, and acting with confidence, integrity, and passion, we’ll be able to change the numbers.

The advice:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for plum assignment or a promotion. Be smart about when and how you do it.
  • Find a sponsor with influence who will really advocate for you visibly.
  • Give yourself the opportunity to learn a new job and take risks.
  • Nail down your elevator pitch, and be able to repeat it anywhere, anytime.
  • Be honest about what you bring to a boardroom, and how you bring it.
  • When you find an opportunity you’re qualified for, approach it with confidence and don’t second-guess yourself. Believe it.
  • Network, network, network. Be strategic about who you meet and to whom they can connect you.


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