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Most Corporate Boards Still Short on Women

Let’s not fool ourselves. Qualified women of today are unlikely to find themselves on the board of directors at top companies in Massachusetts. However sad and counterproductive, this is a statistical reality. 

Yet there are reasons to hope for strong and lasting change. Every year, the business world is held accountable and pushed forward by the annual Census of Women Directors and Executive Officers of Massachusetts Public Companies.

Key research from Bentley academics forms the backbone of the Census, which is published by the Boston Club, an organization of women executives in the Bay State, and sponsored by Bentley University. The Census tracks the gender composition of directors and executive officers of the largest 100 public companies in Massachusetts. It monitors and publicizes the success and failures of companies on this politicized front.

The numbers are not good. In 2013, women held just 13.8 percent of the seats on the boards of these 100 companies, and accounted for just 10.8 percent of the executive officers.

Moreover, many companies still operate with no women on their boards. Twenty-nine of these companies had all-male boards in 2013. “In this day and age, I find it amazing that companies continue to operate with all-male boards, even companies for which the vast majority of their customers are women,” says Patricia Flynn, trustee professor of Economics and Management at Bentley. She compiles the Census along with Susan Adams, professor of Management and senior director at Bentley’s Center for Women and Business (CWB) and Toni Wolfman, executive adviser of the CWB.

“It is surprising how slow the progress has been,” says Flynn. “Many people accurately describe it as glacial.”

Moreover, 21 of the Census companies have no women on either their boards of directors or in their executive suites. These are the worst offenders and referred to as the “zero-zeroes.”

“The bottom line is the numbers are bad,” says Flynn, who currently serves on the board of Columbia Funds, and teaches corporate governance at the Bentley Graduate School of Business.  

There is, however, some good news. Organizations in more than a dozen states have joined in the push for progress. Often inspired by the Census reports, they are tracking female advancement (or lack of) in their own state’s public companies. Adams works with the newcomer researchers to ensure the methodologies are consistent and the reports comparable. Unfortunately, all of these reports show a relative lack of women in the boardroom and executive suite.

“There has been some progress,” says Flynn. “When we started the Census in 2003, 50 of the 100 Census companies had all-male boards!” 

Women and supportive men are changing the culture one company and one board at a time. A public push in the right direction can sometimes yield wonderfully immediate results as revealed in a great story that Flynn tells about the year the Boston Club released the first Census results. After collecting the data each year, the researchers send a letter to the companies offering each of them a chance to update the information through June 30.

So a letter was sent to the corporate secretary and CEO of a prominent biogen firm.

“They flipped out,” remembers Flynn. “They were a zero-zero, and none too happy to be listed in the Census that was about to be published.”

She said the company felt the census made them look really bad. They didn’t want the negative publicity that would come with the release of the report. The corporate secretary came straight away to meet with the relevant contributors at Bentley.

“We said, ‘Sorry, but we can’t fix this — you have to,’” says Flynn. “He then went back to the company’s directors, who voted to expand the size of the board and put a woman on it.”

They weren’t a zero-zero in the next census.

“We were dancing in the office that day.” 

Meg Murphy is a freelance writer.

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