Disrupting The Default: Gender Diversity on Corporate Boards

January 13, 2015Catalyst releases its annual Census of women in business every winter. This year, we tried something new: our first-ever global census of women board directors.

Why focus on boards? Because gender diversity on corporate boards—or the lack thereof—is a hot topic around the world, and decades of Catalyst research suggest that increasing the number of women in positions of power has the potential to transform the way they’re treated at all levels of society.

Although we’ve shifted the focus and methodology of our research this year, we remain committed to our goal of expanding opportunities for women and business. Unfortunately, the latest numbers tell us what we already know: regardless of where they live, women are seriously underrepresented on corporate boards.

The good news is that I’ve traveled to 10 different countries in my first year as CEO of Catalyst, and I know firsthand that there’s a growing push to advance women in business and create inclusive workplaces around the world. Smart leaders are beginning to see that women, like men, are eager to achieve, contribute, and be recognized and rewarded for their talents.

Not only is it possible and desirable to achieve gender equality on boards, it’s easier than many companies think. Catalyst doesn’t just keep a tally—we pioneer solutions.

Our Catalyst Corporate Board Resource identifies women so qualified for board service they come personally recommended by a CEO. After Maggie Wilderotter, Chairman and CEO of Frontier Communications and a Catalyst board member, sponsored Andrea Bierce, Catalyst matched Andrea with an India-headquartered company, Cyient, which ultimately appointed her to its board.

The Women on Board® initiative pairs women board candidates with board chair mentors. After its success in Canada, where over 40% of program alumnae were appointed to corporate boards, we’ve expanded this program to the United States. James S. Turley, former Chairman and CEO of EY and current board director at Citigroup, Emerson Electric Company, and Intrexon Corporation, didn’t hesitate to accept our invitation to join our US program: “I know the great value that women bring to a board.”

So far 27 companies have signed on to the Catalyst Accord, a call to action for Canadian corporations to raise the proportion of Financial Post 500 board seats held by women to 25% by 2017. By publicly committing to diversity and setting measurable goals, these companies are demonstrating that leadership and accountability start at the top.

What else can senior leaders do to disrupt the default and capitalize on women’s strengths? Here are some practical tips:

  • Model intentional leadership. Don’t just talk about change; set measurable goals, establish timelines, and follow through.

  • Cast a wider net. Talented directors come from a variety of backgrounds. The supply of board-qualified women is out there. Let’s make sure the demand is as well.

  • Sponsor a talented woman (or two or three!) you believe in, and help her to succeed.

  • Insist on diverse candidate slates—and that both women and men have seats at the table. Companies eager to draw from all talent will implement practices designed to achieve gender diversity, as many are already doing.

As calls for global gender equality increase, Catalyst continues to uncover evidence that closing the gender gap on corporate boards isn’t just good for women; it’s also good for men, businesses, and communities. Gender-diverse boards strengthen companies’ talent pipelines and increase financial performance. There’s also a clear link between gender diversity on boards and corporate social responsibility, as revealed in a recent Catalyst report.

Change isn’t just around the corner; it’s already here. We have the board-ready women, the tools to make diversity happen, and leaders in every country who are willing to step up and disrupt the status quo.

The only question is whether your company will help lead the charge—or lag behind.



The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.