More companies are on board with women on their boards

“It has become much more mainstream over the last few years. I think it is finally seeping into people's consciousness. We're making some headway in government, not just in the corporate hierarchies," says Suzanne Mayes, Forum of Executive Women president, on female leadership.

Maybe it's the possibility that a woman might lead the United States as president, but "we've finally picked up some momentum" around the topic of female leadership in the corporate world, Suzanne Mayes says.

"It has become much more mainstream over the last few years," said Mayes, president of the Forum of Executive Women, a local organization of female business leaders. "I think it is finally seeping into people's consciousness. We're making some headway in government, not just in the corporate hierarchies." 

On Thursday morning, the forum released its annual report on female leadership on corporate boards, in executive suites, and among the ranks of the region's top nonprofits, with highlights to be presented at a leadership breakfast.

In 2015, the report notes, women filled one-third of the 60 board openings at the Philadelphia region's top 100 public companies. In that same year, the number of companies with at least 25 percent of their boards made up of women rose to 19 percent from 14 percent. The number of companies with no women on their boards decreased from 35 to 27.

Even so, women held only 14 percent of all local public-company board seats,  up just slightly from 2014. In 2009, women held 11 percent of the seats.

In 2015, the report says, only six public companies in the region had a female chief executive. And only 11 percent of public companies' top earners were female, up from 9 percent in 2009.

"I don't think we can fool ourselves into thinking our work is done." said Mayes, a partner at Cozen O'Connor P.C. in Philadelphia.  

The presidential race is putting attention on some issues women face on the job, she said, "whether it's pay equity or the role of women in general. When you have women in high positions of power and visibility, it's helpful to the conversation."

As the job market tightens, companies that want to attract top-notch female talent know they need female role models at the top, she said. And as females gain corporate power, they'll want to see women among the leaders in the companies doing business with them.

The forum's report lists eight companies that included no women on their boards in 2014 but added a female member in 2015. Among them were Aramark, Brandywine Realty Trust, Five Below Inc., and Axalta Coating Systems Ltd. 

"Prior to the end of 2014, we were a privately-held company and the board consisted of the heads of the [Carlyle Group] deal team," all of whom were  male, Axalta chief executive Charles Shaver wrote in an email.

"As we went through the process to take the company public, I was committed to build a board diverse not only in experience but, over time, balanced from a gender perspective," Shaver wrote. "We were thrilled to find a woman executive, Lori Ryerkerk, with exactly the skill set we were looking for."

There were more women leaders at nonprofits in 2015, according to the report. Among the region's 20 largest four-year colleges and universities, seven had women presidents and women held 29 percent of the board seats. Six of the region's largest health-care systems were led by women, and women held 24 percent of the board seats.

The group's analysis was conducted by the Philadelphia office of PwC, a public-accounting firm and longtime sponsor of the Forum of Executive Women's research. 

How does change happen? Sometimes,  the report says, it takes one determined person.

William Diefenderfer 3d, board chairman at Navient Corp., explained how the student-loan processing company's board came to have a majority of female members, seven out of 13.  

"We had a unique opportunity," he said. Navient used to be part of Sallie Mae, but when it was spun off, half its board went with Sallie Mae, creating six openings.

Diefenderfer and Navient's chief executive, John "Jack" Remondi, decided they would search by skill set. Navient turned to Diversified Search, the Philadelphia headhunting firm led by founder Judith M. von Seldeneck. Diversified sent a slate of women, and "we liked them all," Diefenderfer said.  

The old Sallie Mae board, he said, was all male, mostly in their 70s. "It was a good old boy board," Diefenderfer said. Navient's female board members are "experts in their areas. It's not just a go-along, get-along board."

"I think the women who are fighting to get recognition and to join major boards work harder. The energy they bring is higher," he said. "Maybe in 50 years, when things settle down, it'll be different."