Corporate Boards and Mad Men: We’ve Come How Far?

Characters from AMC's Mad Men, "Babylon" Episode

Part One of Two Parts

The TakeAway: Number of Women on Corporate Boards Still Low, Despite Research on Value of 3 or More Women Directors

Mad Men is one of my favorite television shows because it captures the style and complexity of the early 1960s.  One dominant theme is the struggle for personal authenticity in a world of swollen social expectations.  Women, especially, inhabit secondary status.  Yet despite the ascendancy of women in the workplace since then, “Mad Men” still rule the boardroom.

Don’t get me wrong: women serve on corporate boards – but they’re still a significant minority, and not always the best choice.  One group monitoring this is Catalyst, a nonprofit founded during the Mad Men era (1962) to help women enter the workforce.  (For example, Catalyst’s Corporate Board Services plays matchmaker, linking women seeking directorships to boards seeking women directors.)  According to the latest (2008) edition of Catalyst’s annual Census of Women Board Directors of Fortune 500 firms:

  • Women hold 15.2 percent of all Fortune 500 directorships – up only slightly from 14.8 percent in 2007;
  • 66 of these companies have no women on their boards;
  • Little change occurred in the number of firms with one (159), two (183), or three (92) or more women directors;
  • Little change occurred in the number of directorships held by women of color (3.2 percent); and
  • Among women of color, two-thirds are black, almost one-quarter are Latinas, and about one-tenth are Asian.

A study of female directors among the Russell 3000, conducted earlier this year by Annalisa Barrett of The Corporate Library and available for free download, finds even more depressing trends:

  • Only 60 percent of the companies included in the Russell 3000 – and less than half of those within the Russell 2000 – have a woman on board;
  • Only about a quarter of Russell 3000 companies have more than one woman on their board; and
  • There’s a dearth of women in positions of board leadership and influence at Russell 3000 companies, such as on compensation, audit, and nominating committees.

Increasing representation of women on boards brings a number of benefits to companies, according to Money for Nothing author John Gillespie in a May 2010 interview with Murninghan Post Editor Bill Baue.  Gillespie cited a 2006 Wellesley study entitled “Critical Mass on Corporate Boards: Why Three or More Women Enhance Governance,” which finds that women directors:

  • broaden boards’ discussions to include a wider set of stakeholders;
  • are more persistent than their male counterparts in pursuing answers to difficult questions; and
  • bring a more collaborative approach to leadership, which improves communication among directors and between the board and management.

Unfortunately, given the low numbers and high demand for women directors, the few that do occupy board seats often hold more than one directorship  – particularly for black women, a “two-fer”.  We called that “tokenism” back in the day; now it’s called “interlocking board membership”.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at this and why it’s a problem, not just for women, but for all of us.  Now, just as office scotch-drinking and cigarette smoking have fallen by the wayside, so too should the rampantly embedded sexism portrayed so well on Mad Men.

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