How to Get More Women of Color into the Boardroom (Blog Post)
Statistics show progress has been too slow. Here’s how to change that.
Women of color are still the most underrepresented group in Fortune 500 boardrooms. As of 2020, only 5.7% of Fortune 500 board seats in the US were held by women of color, despite women of color making up nearly 20% of the US population.
That is one of the findings in the Missing Pieces Report: A Board Diversity Census of Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards, a multiyear study published by the Alliance for Board Diversity (ABD), in collaboration with Deloitte. (Catalyst is one of the four leadership organizations that make up ABD.)
While White women gained 209 board seats in 2020, women of color gained just 71, and the report found it will take until 2074 until the number of Fortune 500 board seats held by people of color reaches ABD’s aspirational 40% board-representation rate.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Meesha Rosa, Vice President of Corporate Board Services, leads the Catalyst Women On Board™ initiative, which works to increase the number of women, particularly women of color, on corporate boards through practical solutions that address key barriers women board candidates face. In an interview with Catalyst’s Karina Schroeder, Rosa discussed the actions companies can take to increase board diversity—and how women of color can propel their careers into the boardroom.
Q: What are the barriers preventing women of color from gaining representation on boards?
Meesha Rosa: One barrier for all women is not having a strong board value proposition. Only a small portion of women have held the title of CEO, for example, although they are making important inroads. And many don’t have experience in revenue-generating roles or profit-and-loss responsibilities that demonstrate they can run a significant business unit. That is something boards often look to as a competency you need.
A second barrier that women, especially women of color, face is lack of sponsorship. Many board candidate introductions happen informally, and women need sponsors who can promote their board candidacy to leaders who are already at the table.
Q: Sponsorship has been a big focus of Catalyst’s Women On Board™ initiative. Why?
Rosa: Sponsorship is a very powerful tool. There are many women who are board-ready but don’t have the networks they need. A sponsor can get them in front of a board, increase their visibility, advocate on their behalf, and make introductions to someone that is looking for a board candidate.
So, sponsorship is an opportunity to go around the pervasive barriers that women face and ensure they’re gaining entree into the boardroom. A good sponsor will speak on your behalf with a very good understanding of your board value proposition.
Q: Are there specific jobs that make women “board-ready”?
Rosa: One of the most important things that women can do at this stage of their careers is to get the “hot jobs.” Catalyst research outlines what “hot jobs” are—namely roles with profit-and-loss responsibilities and high visibility—and those are pretty much the pathway to the boardroom. While these jobs are important for anyone aspiring to be a board director, women of color face unique barriers to obtaining them, specifically gender and racial bias.
For women and particularly women of color, board readiness competency must include both skill mastery and sponsorship. Because even if you have the right skillset, you must also have the right network of influencers, sponsors, and other advocates to put your name out there. Sponsors are critical for introducing you to board opportunities, helping you get appointed to a board, and counseling you during the process.
Q: What advice do you have for executives who want to sponsor women of color into the boardroom?
Rosa: First is to step out of your comfort zone. Sponsor people who don’t look like you or don’t have the same leadership style. Look for potential job candidates who are outside your existing networks.
Second, don’t always speak at your industry-specific or your core expertise groups. Look for speaking opportunities at events outside of your industry, for greater exposure into communities of color, or other professional networks that are just for people of color. The only way for you to understand what talent is out there and get comfortable with endorsing those candidates is to expose yourself to those candidates.
Q: What about organizations themselves? How should they approach board diversity?
Rosa: In 2020, companies where women held more than 30% of board seats outperformed their peers in 11 of 15 sectors, according to a new report from BoardReady. Companies where people of color directors held at least 30% of board seats also saw year-over-year revenue growth of 4%; less-diverse companies saw revenue declines. So, my advice to companies would be to look around your boardroom table. Assess whether you truly have the right mix of skills and competencies across all intersections of diversity. Ask if this a board comprised of a group of directors who reflect demographics you serve, can set strategic business growth, and enable responses to the demands of the current business environment and to all stakeholders.
Over the next five years, the Catalyst Women On Board™ initiative will amplify best practices to mitigate bias and promote inclusivity in boardrooms, especially on nominating committees. Shareholders, investors, and employees are all demanding improvements in board diversity. Now is the time to demonstrate real commitment.
Is your organization interested in Catalyst Women On Board™ resources? Contact Meesha Rosa at [email protected].
Karina produces a wide variety of content to advance Catalyst’s research and expertise. She writes blog posts, monthly newsletters, commentary, and other content both for Catalyst’s website and external platforms. As a key member of the editorial team, she also works to ensure that all Catalyst content maintains brand identity…