Executive women: Choice or chance?

Choice or chance? That's the question the Philadelphia Forum of Executive Women asked in its latest Deloitte-sponsored report showing virtual stagnation in the proportion of women executives and board members in Philadelphia's largest corporations. The answer is simple -- if companies want women on their boards, they need to choose to make it happen. Chance doesn't work.

That's the word from longtime Philadelphia researcher Vicki Kramer who has devoted at least a decade to examining proxy records and analyzing this topic.

In a conversation at Friday's Forum breakfast, (you can read my Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer story about the report and the Forum), Kramer looked more than a little annoyed with the idea that women finding their way onto boards and into high-paying executive jobs solely relies on their ability to maneuver the system. Sexism persists, she said, despite ample proof that women can bring a fresh perspective to leadership endeavors. And it's simply to ridiculous to assume that there aren't women with the requisite smarts and experience available for board service, at the very least.

Kramer handled the research for many a Forum study and also for national studies run by ION, a network of groups like the Forum. One woman on a board is not enough, she said. Three is the right number. One woman can be a token, easily ignored, and two isn't much better. It takes three to change the vibe in the board room, she said.

Later Kramer sent along a press release from an April event in Pittsburgh honoring companies there with three or more board directors. Pennsylvania state treasurer Rob McCord was at the event and promised that the state's treasury department would do more to promote diversity on boards.

The treasury department is a large institutional investor, and McCord promised the state would use its clout to:

  • Manually vote on corporate board nominee slates via a formalized proxy voting system.
  • Correspond with company CEOs, board chairs, and nominating committees that fail to include women directors on corporate board nominee slates.
  • Maintain an open dialogue with corporate leadership and board nominating committees to include representation of women and minorities;
  • Sponsor, submit, and support shareholder resolutions that seek a greater representation of women on corporate boards;
  • Encourage amending board nominating committee charters to ensure that female candidates are routinely sought in board searches; and
  • Encourage other state treasurers and colleagues to join Pennsylvania in taking these actions.

In the Philadelphia region, six among the region's largest 100 publicly-traded companies have three women on their boards: Sunoco Inc., Cigna Corp., Campbell Soup Co., Sunoco Logistics Partners, Charming Shoppes Inc. and Harleysville National Corp. No company had more than three.