Women on Boards: Changing the Landscape of the Corporate Board

By Amelia Araujo

In California, legislation (SB-826) passed requiring companies with executive offices in the state to have at least one woman serve on their board of directors by the end of this year. By the end of 2021, they’ll need three. The Financial Women of San Francisco teamed up with Berkeley Haas’s Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership (EGAL), Center for Responsible Business, and the Women in Leadership club to hear from outstanding women serving on corporate boards to understand the selection process, the obstacles they face, and the advice they have for other women planning to serve. The event was moderated by Dr. Kellie McElhaney, Founding Director of EGAL, and included Joan Dea (Board Director on Charles Schwab, Cineplex Entertainment, Torstar Corporation, and Performance Sports Group), Sabrina Simmons (Board Director on Williams-Sonoma Inc, e.l.f., Beauty Inc., Columbia Sportswear Co) and Robin Washington (Board Director on Salesforce, Alphabet Inc, Honeywell International Inc.) as panelists.

Pictured Left to Right: Joan Dea, Sabrina Simmons, Robin Washington | Photo by Jim Block

The conversation was guided around five main topics: motivation to serve, selection process insights, boardroom challenges, experiences of difference, and supporting more women and people of color.

Motivation to Serve on a Board of Directors

Dea, Simmons, and Washington emphasized their desire for continuous learning and passion for tackling challenging issues. Simmons identified herself as a student always and sees the chance to learn as a board member as a strong motivator. Another top reason was the opportunity to collaborate with high quality, interesting people. Washington noted the sharp contrast between the often lonely C-Suite job and the invigorating collaboration that happens with boards. Simmons emphasized there being a win-win situation: you get the opportunity to stretch yourself and learn, while also being able to make a difference by contributing your own unique value. Dea emphasized a sense of responsibility for adding a diverse voice to the board.

Insights on the Board Selection Process

Sponsors and relationships proved to be a significant part of the process. All speakers noted the importance of networking. Simmons shared how she got tapped to be on the Williams-Sonoma board while she was the CFO at Gap, Inc. The Chairman of Williams-Sonoma sat on the Gap board and tapped her because of her previous interactions with the board and his confidence in her abilities to properly support the board at Williams-Sonoma. However, the panelists noted that the nature of the board selection process is changing. Boards are expanding to look beyond C-Suite positions. Washington promoted this as an opportunity to do the research and put oneself out there for boards of interest. Our speakers also reminded the audience that the process is not a one-way street. Washington said, “the board is choosing you, but you’re also choosing the board.” Serving on a board is a commitment. It can be as long as your career, and you have to make sure to have key connections with the CEO and with the other board members and ensure similar values are in order. As a last comment on this portion of the event, Kellie McElhaney wanted to restress the importance of not jumping at the first board offer you receive. Women historically have not had as many opportunities to serve on boards which can increase the temptation to join when you receive your first offer. All of our speakers reiterated the importance of not settling and instead finding your own best fit.

Challenges in the Boardroom

From removing a CEO, to working with activist shareholders, to complex mergers, our speakers described how dealing with these challenges means lots of creative problem-solving and time commitment. Even without these complex issues, being part of an effective board is a huge time commitment. Simmons discussed how most of the work is done “offline,” meaning there is a tremendous load of work to be done before the board meetings begin. She stressed, “The last thing you want is for someone to be surprised in a board meeting and be unable to vote.” A relatively new challenge that they have faced is due to the changing landscape of the business sector shifting towards social responsibility. Washington stressed that while the shareholder’s importance has not been diminished, there is also increased concern for multiple stakeholders, and navigating the company’s impact is a more current obstacle.

Pictured Left to Right: Sue Mazzetti, Kellie McElhaney, Joan Dea, Sabrina Simmons, Robin Washington | Photo by Jim Block

Businesses are being pushed to innovate and disrupt themselves. Dea remarked that “to have diverse experiences, diverse points of view, and broadly defined diversity at the table is such an asset for the organization.” When it comes to the more common, but challenging strategic issues that companies face, Dea finds that when more diverse perspectives that are involved, the number of better ideas increases. Diversity can be understood in a multitude of ways. Simmons shared that she doesn’t just focus on diversity through a gender lens but rather through the diversity of experience. For example, her boards are all consumer-branded companies which means understanding the supply chain is so critical. Being able to work with the Head of Chief Supply Chain emphasizes how people across industries can add functional expertise.

Experiences of Difference with Women on Boards

McElhaney discussed research that demonstrates different expectations for corporate boards that include women. She mentioned a perplexing statistic around board members being more prepared and doing the pre-reads when there are women on the board. Dea brought us back to the value of different lived experiences and how those affect individual perspectives. Having had experiences early in her career allowed her to be able to think closely about talent and at other sides of a story. She also acknowledged that everyone comes with different biases and that it is important for people to check their biases at the door. Unique lived experiences shape the way individuals approach situations and can add value to any company. Washington reminded us that “you are at that table because you have skillsets or expertise that adds (value)… not simply because of your color or gender.” Yet, is is important to try to understand the perspective of women, people of color, and other members of historically disadvantaged groups to help ensure effort is put into their success. Washington spoke about the promotion of a woman into a leadership role, highlighting the idea of mentorship and being proactive to help her be successful. She summarized with the idea of the melting pot of experience, “when you get that, you’re not missing anything at the table.” Sabrina Simmons spoke from her own experience of feeling the need to work twice as hard as the man next to her. They urged to not maintain this culture that pressures women to feel that way; once women are in leadership roles, it is important to set a different example or to find creative ways to maneuver diverse challenges like maternity leave or supporting parents. It is also so important to demonstrate vulnerability to show others who might be struggling that they can move forward as well.

How to Support More Women and People of Color on Boards

First, there is no quick fix to increase diversity on corporate boards. Dea simplified a complex answer into a succinct one: “hit it from all sides.” One part of that is transparency and disclosure, like reporting goals for diversity on a board compared to the reality. Since culture is such a vital part of board selection, it is also critical to increase diversity on nominating committees. In order to keep the boards fresh with different perspectives, Simmons suggested term limits, whether official or unofficial, to keep the board fresh in a natural way. Leveraging one’s network can help sow the seeds of board selection even if it takes years for it to come to fruition. Washington spoke to the notion of paying it forward and finding ways to introduce diverse, skilled people to boards that would be good fits for them. Networking and being champions for people who are not usually represented on boards are ways that every person can support more women and people of color to join boards.

Joan Dea, Sabrina Simmons, and Robin Washington all added valuable insight on the pathway to, and the struggles of, board membership. Their authentic reflections were vulnerable and inspiring to the audience, but their discussion of the future left the most impact. While they make time to network strategically to uplift others, they urge folks of today to be proactive in their life path. For women looking to serve on corporate boards, this conversation urges them to take charge of their move forward, and for everyone in the audience, this conversation encourages others to advance their own careers while maintaining a culture of belonging.

Photos by Jim Block

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.

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