Corporate boards have long been territory dominated by white males, and this entrenched tradition has been very slow to change. Even today, the boards of the S&P 500 are almost 80% male. Women hold only about 21% of S&P 500 board seats, and women of color are almost invisible—they hold less than 4% of Fortune 500 board seats. But there is a simple yet powerful way to accelerate change: sponsorship. Catalyst President & CEO Deborah Gillis says:
At a certain point, the path to success changes from ‘what you know’ to ‘who knows what you know.’ The consistent theme in my own career was people vouching for me and championing me within their networks. And in most cases, one call or message from one of these sponsors ‘lending me their credibility’ made it possible for me to get in the door, showcase my skills and experience, and land new roles. I wouldn’t be a CEO today without sponsorship.
As the most senior officer at Catalyst, Gillis has witnessed the vital role sponsorship plays in helping women advance to the highest levels of organizations again and again. And that’s why in 2013, Catalyst acquired Women On Board™ Canada—a program that began pairing board-ready candidates with CEOs and board chairs in 2007, to help women earn more board seats. The program has been so successful that it was expanded to the United States in 2015. To date, Catalyst Women On Board™ has led to more than 145 board appointments, with approximately 62% of alumnae having earned seats on corporate boards.
According to Meesha Rosa, Director, Corporate Board Services and head of Catalyst Women On Board™, the program is a game-changer for these exceptional board candidates and the companies they serve. Because boosting diversity isn’t simply the right thing to do; it’s a business imperative.
Having a diverse board with women, including women of color, enhances problem-solving, drives innovation, provides a competitive edge only the full talent pool can bring, and sets companies up to win in the market of the future. Our country is getting more and more diverse. According to the US Census Bureau, by 2050 women of color will be the majority of women in the United States, but they currently represent only 3.8% of Fortune 500 board seats. Can any board afford to ignore the majority?
Catalyst Women On Board™ recently announced its second US class of 10 board-ready, senior executive women and their mentors/sponsors—CEOs, Board Chairs, and Directors from major global entities including Deloitte, Visa, Sodexo, and McKinsey. Just as the participants before them, each protégé is paired one-on-one with a sponsor for two years. So far in 2017, Catalyst Women On Board™ alumnae have earned nine board appointments. And the careers of alumnae from years past continue to thrive. Take, for example, the story of Sarah Raiss, former EVP, Corporate Services, at TransCanada Corporation.
Raiss joined Women On Board™ Canada’s first class in 2007, and was paired with sponsor Robert Harding, then the Chair of Brookfield Asset Management. Despite her standing as an extremely accomplished executive—she had been named to Canada's Most Powerful Women: Top 100 list and was a member of nonprofit boards, government entity boards, industry advisory boards, and a small public company’s board—Raiss had yet to achieve her goal of earning an appointment to a large, publicly traded organization’s board. For that, she needed an introduction to a wider networkonce in the door, her skills and experience could propel her the rest of the way. Simply put, she needed sponsorship.
Bob [Harding] gave me great advice on how to target boards, and suggested companies that would best suit the skills I brought to the table. We had very interesting discussions about governance. He connected me with a variety of influential people, invited me to important events, and put his ‘stamp of approval’ on me as a prospective board member. One of the people he introduced me to suggested I consider being on retail boards. This prepared me well as a retail board opportunity came my way shortly thereafter. This was my first large publicly traded board. It paved the way for other large board opportunities to come.
Many more prestigious opportunities would indeed follow. Raiss formerly chaired the Alberta Electric System Operator’s board, and is currently a sitting member of multiple other boards, including Loblaw Companies, Vermilion Energy, Inc., Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers Incorporated, and Commercial Metals Company (US). In addition, she chaired the Calgary Chapter of the International Women’s Forum of Canada, and sat on the Board of Directors for the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation. And she has come full circle by serving as a Catalyst Women On Board™ sponsor herself.
With the continued support of passionate sponsors like Raiss, more talented, accomplished women will earn long-awaited seats on corporate boards. Says Gillis:
It’s long past time to bust the myth we hear again and again, that companies can’t find women to serve on their boards. We disprove that myth one introduction at a time, by making powerful connections—bringing together women, sponsors, and companies to create opportunities. And this is something every leader can do. You don’t even need a formal program. Just start. Find a high-potential woman today and become her sponsor. A simple, powerful, possibly even life-changing act.
And when all these talented protégés become leaders in positions of power in the boardroom, the hope is that they will go on to sponsor the next generation of women, so that when the time comes, “who they know” is an advantage, not an insurmountable hurdle.