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Busting 3 Excuses For Predominantly Male Boards

The three reasons companies give for why there are so few women on their boards–and why they’re wrong.

Busting 3 Excuses For Predominantly Male Boards
[Photo: Flickr user Sascha Kohlmann]

There’s been a consistent dialogue in the past few years acknowledging that there are not enough women on corporate boards–and that dialogue exists for good reason.

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According to research from the 2013 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board Directors, women held only 16.9% of board seats in corporate American in 2013, practically no change from the previous year.

The question many of us ask is, “Why?” Why don’t more U.S. companies appoint women to their boards?

In my experience, companies’ answers typically fall into three categories–and none of those answers holds up under scrutiny.

1. “Our Company Is Fine.”

Since when is complacency the way to get ahead in business? The fact that a company is doing fine does not preclude it from doing better. That’s a backwards way of thinking.

The research is clear when it comes to the benefits of a more diverse boardroom. People with different backgrounds and experiences approach issues from different angles and spark healthy and productive debates. Not to mention that complacency often leads to poorer corporate performance.

The excuse, “Everything is fine,” is not a valid reason to stop seeking new and diverse board members who can bring a unique and valuable perspective to improve a company’s board leadership.

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2. “We Can’t Find Qualified Women To Serve On Our Board.”

Many companies claim they can’t find qualified women to serve as directors. That only means they’re not looking in the right places. When it comes to an executive or board search, many people default to what they are comfortable with. They rely on the same old personal networks or the same search firms they’ve always used. Is it any surprise they get the same type of candidate time after time? If you want to go fishing, you have to go where the fish are.

Women-only databases exist, including some featuring women with board training, precisely for companies interested in adding women to their boards. The California State Teachers’ Retirement System and California Public Employees’ Retirement System, for example, established a database of prospective directors known as the Diverse Director DataSource that’s a great resource for companies looking to add women and minorities to their boards. WomenCorporateDirectors and the Inter Organization Network are other organizations that help companies add talented women to their boards. In fact, many European companies have begun to tap into these networks of U.S. female executives and add them to their own corporate boards.

Think about that–European companies are successfully finding women board candidates from across an ocean. The excuse by some U.S. companies that they aren’t able to find enough qualified women in their own backyard just doesn’t hold water.

3. “We Don’t Have Any Board Openings”

A third reason often mentioned for maintaining an all-male board is, “There aren’t any current vacancies for directors.” There are no hard and fast regulations for a proper board size so there is nothing to prohibit a board from expanding.

What is the right size for your board? The board determines that and the number can usually be raised, especially to add a critical contribution such as diversity. Think about when a board loses a member. The search for a replacement is not driven solely by the vacancy but by the need to find the right person. Often no replacement is sought at all. If a board can survive a decrease in membership, surely it would thrive by an increase of a member or two who would diversify its thinking, experiences, and recommendations.

Change is never easy in any aspect of business or in life. But we need to pursue change if we want it to happen. That includes the composition of our corporate boards.

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It’s time to move beyond the same old reasons companies use for not adding women to their boards. The first step is recognizing the need for change. Look around your own boardroom. How diverse is your board? Are you taking advantage of all the diverse perspectives and experiences that’ll make your company great?

Once the need for change is identified, that’s when exciting new opportunities arise to add new members, including talented women leaders, who’ll strengthen and diversify your board.

Change begins with the board members themselves who have the power to change the board’s make-up. Corporate America needs to look past the people sitting around the conference room table down the hall and beyond the same old networks to start reaching for more equal gender representation in the boardroom. No more excuses.

Susan Adams is a professor of management at Bentley University and the senior director of Bentley’s Center for Women and Business.

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