The number of women directors on boards is paltry relative to the number of male directors--only 13.6 percent of Fortune 500 board seats are held by women, according to a 2003 report by Catalyst, an advisory organization working to advance women in business. Vicki Kramer, an executive committee member for InterOrganization Network, a fast-growing group of six executive business organizations in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, says women can benefit from sitting on boards: "You learn about your own business by trying to think strategically about another business. You also get access to [potential] customers and suppliers. It's an opportunity to learn and network."
So why the disparity? "Men are generally accorded higher status and women lower status," explains Erika Hayes James, professor at the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. James says men's high status can lead to a perception that they're more competent in business.
InterOrganization Network, or ION, is looking to change the statistics. They've come together to increase the number of women on corporate boards and in executive positions in major public companies. To become member organizations of ION, each group first conducted regional studies on the status of women in corporate positions and on boards--so far, some regional results have been lower than the national average.
According to Kramer, ION's sister organizations have hundreds of members qualified to sit on boards, and the committee is urging companies to use ION to find these women. While the number of women sitting on nonprofit boards is higher than on corporate boards, Kramer points out there are still very few women on the boards of the largest nonprofit organizations.
Nonprofit boards may be good training for corporate board service, but they aren't direct stepping-stones, says Sara K. Gould, president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, a national women's philanthropy organization based in New York City. "Corporate boards and CEOs just don't look at the nonprofit sector [when] they think of recruiting new members. But it's clearly easier for women to reach board membership in nonprofits."
Lauren Smith, co-chair of the Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Women Executive Leadership Census Committee, which has recently looked at the status of women in board positions in Florida, suggests that to increase your odds of being considered for a board, you can do the following:
1. Conduct a professional self-assessment. What important skills and experience do you bring to the party?
2. Package yourself. Create a board-oriented bio--not a resume--that summarizes your qualifications for sitting on a board.
3. Be visible. Take on leadership positions that will create positive visibility for you. Communicate your interest to those with contacts at the company boards you seek.
"Women need to have a stronger voice in business," says Smith. "We don't have enough of a voice in corporate boardrooms where critical decisions are made about how business gets done."