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Is the push for Board diversity over?

May 31, 2024
Diversity & Inclusion

The past decade has seen corporate boards put a premium on board diversity — and for a while, the efforts paid off. The number of women on S&P 500 boards soared from 23% in 2018 to 32% in 2023, and directors from racially and ethnically diverse groups grew from 20% in 2018 to 25% in 2023, according to research by the Conference Board.

But if you look solely at data from 2022 to 2023, it’s clear that progress has slowed. Both groups only saw a bump of 1% year over year. Not only that, but a new report by Korn Ferry suggests that women who do serve on corporate boards have less belief in their ability to influence the board. According to the research, only 65% of women feel they have the ability to influence decision-making versus 85% of men.

However, board analysts and current board members expressed more optimism than these latest stats might suggest. Many said the report didn’t reflect their experience and said the boards they serve on continue to prioritize diversity. There can also be a disconnect when it comes to perceived impact and actual influence.

“When I read that Korn Ferry report, my first reaction was that women just perceive they don’t have power and men perceive that they do,” says Diana Hessan, CEO of investment firm Salient Ventures and a member of multiple boards. “I really don’t think it’s about the actual situation in the boardroom. Perhaps our bar for what impact means is just much higher.”

The real challenge continues to be pushing for greater representation of women on corporate boards. Progressive initiatives like the NASDAQ diversity rule have recently been struck down in the courts, and cultural backlash against DEI has forced companies to put diversity initiatives on the backburner or make them less public. In the face of these headwinds, new board members will require even more training and mentoring so they can make the most of their seats.

The Power of Presence
Even as some may perceive a lack of influence on the board, that doesn’t mean their presence there isn’t driving positive change.

“Advantages of diversity do not result solely from the contribution of the ‘diverse’ team member,” says Herman Brodie, Founder of consulting firm Prospecta Limited. “Other team members tend to change their behavior in a beneficial way in the presence of diversity.” Studies show juries are more thorough in their deliberations, make fewer factual errors, and correct each other more readily in the presence of ethnic diversity. On boards, the presence of a woman has been shown to improve male board members’ attendance at board meetings and their preparation for them.

When it comes to the boardroom itself, women can also physically position themselves for maximum impact. “Where you sit can make a difference in your success,” says Kathryn Landis, Founder at Kathryn Landis Consulting. “Men tend to sit in the front and center during meetings, so don’t get relegated to the sidelines. Arrive early, pick your seat, and prepare to blow them away.”

Elucidate Expectations
Corporate board politics often require more nuance and even more emotional intelligence than a C-level position requires; and that can mean you won’t have or be expected to have as much decision-making power. This can be jarring when coming from an executive leadership position, but it can help you determine where you will have the most impact.

“A new board member must strike a balance between delivering the value they are being asked to contribute, while leaving space for the management and other directors,” says Marne Martin, CEO at travel and expense management company Emburse, who has served on multiple boards, often as the only woman. “In candor, allowing for equal access might not be the objective for every corporate board, so new directors need to ask the Chair, management, and shareholders what value they can provide and why they are being brought on the board.” That process can build rapport, trust, and respect, which will pay dividends when it comes to impact over the long run.

This positioning also can be helpful when it comes to how the board is expected to handle or discuss diversity. “Some executives and chairs have been told they need to embrace diversity without being prepared or practiced to do it,” says Martin. “For everyone involved, it is often easier to have a candid conversation that lays out clear expectations and a charter of how diversity is being realized, why, and what is the desired outcome.” That ensures that the initiative is adding true value to the business, and one that can be measured with metrics.

Proper Training
Women who serve on boards continue to say mentorship is essential when it comes to preparing the next generation of board members. Many women get their board seats through networking or knowing someone at the company or the board, so identifying rising talent can help improve future representation.

For those looking to step into their first board role, Hessan suggests taking advantage of intro classes and seminars offered by the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD). Organizations like 50/50 Women on Boards also offer programs and workshops to push for progress.

Even if women have a ways to go when it comes to equal representation, they can still have outsized impact at the board level — and create the conditions needed for more women to take their rightful seats at the table.

By Lindsey Galloway


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