When it comes to gender in the workplace, this is the best of times and the worst of times. This fall, McKinsey’s broad new analysis on women’s representation in major corporations provided some discouraging perspectives: “Since 2015, the first year of this study, corporate America has made almost no progress in improving women’s representation.” The number of women CEOs of Fortune 500 firms has dropped from 32 to 24, a 25 percent decline, over the past year. Women still represent just 16 percent of all board seats at the 3,000 largest U.S. firms.
On the other hand, women represented 31 percent of new board directors at 3,000 of the largest publicly traded U.S. companies. Progressive gender governance initiatives such as the Paradigms for Parity movement have attracted over 70 major firms to commit to true parity in leadership by 2030. The New York Women’s Forum “Breakfast of Champions” salutes 350 firms with at least 30 percent of board seats held by women.
Institutional investors such as BlackRock and State Street have been evaluating firms in their portfolios with gender representation concerns. The European quota systems for women on boards in such nations as Germany, Norway and France are attracting attention among U.S. legislators.
These varied approaches to voluntary and mandatory composition targets are important to understand. However, in grappling with the hurdles of achieving gender diversity in the boardroom, it’s easy to miss a secondary challenge: once at the table, overcoming subconscious biases, assumptions and social and professional practices can hinder women directors. Here are some warnings I often hear while talking with women who serve on major boards, and advice culled from those conversations on how to handle them.
Join the Club: As a woman who serves on the board of a Fortune 500 company recounted, “I don’t get invited on the golf outings and hunting adventures—or even out to the bar. And it has only gotten worse due to caution with the elevated sensitivities from the #MeToo movement.” To forge meaningful professional relationships with their fellow directors, women directors report the need to arrange individual lunch meetings and attend professional association seminars or other forums on topics of mutual interest where they can network with peers.
Get a Voice: Another prominent woman director reported difficulty getting heard. “They do not stop for air,” she said. “It is tough getting in a word edgewise.” Her approach? She waits for a break in the soliloquy and politely asks, “Are you through?” before commenting. Should the board began to move along or toward a vote, she calls for a pause, saying something like, “Before we move on, I have another perspective.”
Secure Official Roles: Volunteering for key committee leadership roles, such as the executive committee, the audit committee, the compensation committee and the nominating and governance committee is always a way, regardless of gender, to enhance your visibility on a board and win respect from peer directors.
Leverage Tenure: Research from the University of Wisconsin suggests women’s board tenure is 35 percent shorter than those of men. Since directors generally gain influence over years of service on a board, stepping from board to board can be detrimental to effective board service. Seek board seats where you see yourself staying long-term.
Demonstrate What You Bring to the Table: Aware of the external pressures around diversity and board refreshment, some directors may—consciously or unconsciously—view women directors with the skeptical assumption that they are there for political or ornamental reasons. Unfair as it may be, the best way to overcome this view is to be among the best prepared, ready and able to insert expert insight.
Read more: Getting ‘On Board’ With Gender Diversity