Two findings about gender and leadership bookended 2015.
In January, the Pew Research Center found that men and women agree that honesty, intelligence, and decisiveness are believed to be the most essential leadership traits, and both genders say that innovation and intelligence is in evidence in both men and women. As for honesty, ambition, and decisiveness, there’s no gender distinction there, either.
Analyzing assessments from 15,000 participants globally last year formed the basis for a DDI report that revealed although women faced a less certain path to leadership, both men and women scored equally in their ability to drive business.
This continues to puzzle experts, investors, and professionals who know that these findings and others suggest that having more female leadership is good for business. For example, recent MSCI ESG Research shows that global companies with strong female leadership (that is, if the company’s board has three or more women or if its percentage of women on the board is above its country’s average) generated a Return on Equity of 10.1% per year versus 7.4% for those without. Yet women only hold 19.2% of S&P 500 board seats in the United States, according to Catalyst.
Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, a serial entrepreneur and veteran of Polyvore, Google, and Amazon was particularly frustrated by this lack of female leadership in tech company boardrooms. So right in the middle of 2015 she launched the #ChoosePossibility Project and subsequently, theBoardlist, which just emerged this week from beta.
Aimed at changing the ratio of women on boards in the tech industry, theBoardlist is a curated marketplace for CEOs, executives, and investors to discover and connect with over 1,000 highly qualified women vetted and endorsed by 200 business leaders to fill their open board seats. A European marketplace also debuted in beta, and currently has more than 100 female nominees.
According to theBoardlist’s internal data, about 75%-78% of privately funded technology companies have no women among their board of directors, yet Singh Cassidy believes there is plenty of board-ready female talent both in the U.S. and globally. She’s hopeful that currently over 40 active board searches from early stage to public companies in theBoardlist is already inspiring change.
Investors and executives are cautioned that it’s going to take more than plucking a name from the marketplace and extending an offer to appoint them to their board.
Compiling a showcase of credentialed individuals certainly makes it easier to find a female director, but Singh Cassidy maintains that there is nothing simple or easy about developing a relationship between leaders for board service.
"Ensuring the right connection between current board members and a potential new member requires a commitment of time and focus to establish chemistry and determine the right fit," she tells Fast Company, noting, "It is a trusted, credentialed environment that does not lend itself for searching without a purpose or without a commitment."
Countries such as Germany, Norway, France, and Spain are currently tackling the gender disparity on boards by issuing quotas. Currently, there are no diversity quotas in place for legislative boards in the U.S. (voluntary boards must meet 20% of the underrepresented gender by 2020) Singh Cassidy isn’t an advocate of quotas, anyway.
"Hard mandates may not be the best way to ensure the best board," she explains. "We do, however, believe that setting goals and targets for inclusion is critical to driving measurable action, and is a useful tool in the process of creating a better board overall," she says.
Singh Cassidy says that the most important success factor in accelerating diversity at all levels is choosing the most qualified candidate from the broadest pool of talent available. "We think the problem to focus on is equal access to the broadest and most diverse pool of qualified applicants to find the right fit for the board," she observes.
With 1,000+ potential candidates, the so-called pipeline argument doesn’t quite ring true. But to create even more of a talented pool of female board candidates, theBoardlist will also partner with eBay and Marketo for a Corporate Member program. In a statement, the company explains:
"The Corporate Member program provides a platform for leading tech companies to support corporate talent development and board-readiness initiatives for their exceptional female leaders. As corporate members, companies are able to endorse senior women for boards, as well as offer customized educational and networking opportunities to ensure their success as board directors.
Second, in partnership with global sponsor Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, this spring theBoardlist will begin offering board-readiness workshops designed to help women leaders successfully prepare and operate effectively on boards."
A woman who is eyeing a potential seat at the table would do well to consider the value she can bring as a board member over time, says Singh Cassidy. "Think about your inventory of capabilities, either the ones you’re building today or are interested in for the future," she says, "Being the very best at what you do is the single most important thing to focus on, whether it’s finance or product development or marketing."
Another key requirement is learning to influence as a leader versus solely driving results as an operator, Singh Cassidy points out. "This is a harder skill to master but equally critical for the boardroom, where the CEO is driving company operations and your goal is to provide meaningful insight and support that drive better company outcomes."
This is one big challenge for women on boards, according to Solange Charas. A veteran of corporate boards and member of the Thirty Percent Coalition, an organization committed helping women hold 30% of board seats across public companies by the end of this year, Charas told Fast Company in a previous interview, "Research shows that women tend to pursue ideas that they believe are in the best interest of shareholders even under pressure of other board members." For men, she argues, even as high up the chain as Warren Buffett, "Collegiality trumped. Men think more about not making waves."
Some leaders believe rising to that challenge is worth it for business leadership in general. In a statement, eBay’s CEO Devin Wenig said, "Board service ensures our leaders get exposure across many different aspects of business. When they bring that learning back to our company, we are better positioned to create even better experiences for our customers and deliver results for all stakeholders."