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March 2022

Diversity takes a seat in the boardroom: Promoting Women Chairs

One of my recent Coffee Chat conversations with leading women executives focused on a topic that is fast breaking the glass ceiling around the globe. Diversity in the boardroom has been an important agenda for most organizations—particularly over the last year. But what will it take for qualified women executives to make a move from a seat at the table to the head of the table?

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Catalyst, and Forbes show that in 2021 women accounted for almost half (43%) of new board independent directors in the S&P 500. The share of female directors rose to 25.9% last year compared to the 18.9% in 2015—this among the largest 500 publicly traded U.S. companies by revenue.

But women’s representation in chairperson positions barely changed over the period – edging from 7.4% to 7.5%. With only 4% of companies in the S&P 500 represented by a female chair, there is still more to be done to accelerate Diversity in the Boardroom—more specifically, Diversity in the Chair.

What makes an effective chair?

Traditional board requirements focus on:

Demonstrated leadership skills Communications skills Relevant experience as Board Director, CEO, CFO President or large division executive Experience managing complex change – digital transition – crisis – M&A evaluation

But the current and future business environments need to look for skills that prioritize competency over experience and encourage soft skills such as listening, questioning, and framing.

Women Chairs: The Time Is Now Helen Pitcher OBE, Chair of Advanced Boardroom Solutions (INSEAD IDP-C)

Women Chairs: The Time Is Now Helen Pitcher OBE, Chair of Advanced Boardroom Solutions (INSEAD IDP-C) 

Our conversation highlighted key insights that ensure the successful management of existing and upcoming cultural dynamics in the boardroom.

  1. Merge toward a constructive and effective contributory style of board meetings. As Chair, it is up to you how comfortable and confident you make everyone feel in the boardroom. Make sure everyone is heard. That is key. Deflect from a board member who is more outspoken by subtly thanking them a little earlier than they expected, to allow someone who may not be as outspoken – but who has more expertise or knowledge on a particular topic – to share their insights. 
  2. Provide guidance on how best to interact during board meetings. Encouraging team building, collaboration, and soft skills are vital in building positive board relationships. Each director should get the opportunity to state alternative perspectives—and you, as chair, should encourage that and not be the one who opines. 
  3. Rethink and re-engage. An effective Chair should take contentious issues off the table, step away, rethink, and efficiently re-engage on the topic. Before the board meeting, strike up conversations with the CEO and key board members who have a strong opinion on a particular topic so that you can diffuse any potentially contentious issues. It is best to have a cohesive message/consensus within the company management team. Contentious issues can be addressed at another session. Focus on a process to have the best outcome. 
  4. Don’t lay down and accept when it comes to activists. Instead, listen and don’t get into a fight. Being Chair is a considerable time commitment. It also involves dealing with strong personalities who, at times, generate difficult situations. As Chair, it is important not to dominate, argue, or fight. The key is to listen, allow the activist to come in and present to the board, make them feel heard, and then decide.
  5. Be disciplined—and inclusive as it relates to tenure on boards. Board evaluations, while necessary, can also be challenging. One needs to be disciplined and have the courage to ensure the directors don’t feel like they are lifers on the board. Have a well-defined skills matrix that allows for more honest conversations on what your future board membership looks like. Be transparent and have sound, unprejudiced reasoning for each decision you make.