Invisible: Why many women aren’t on boards

3/1/2012, noon
While many female executives have made it to the top of their department or senior executive levels within their organizations, ...

While many female executives have made it to the top of their department or senior executive levels within their organizations, too few occupy the most coveted position of all — the executive seat in America’s boardrooms.

“Getting an invitation to sit on a board is all about positioning,” said Lizabeth Ardisana, CEO of ASG Renaissance, who sits on the boards of Oakwood Hospital and Kettering University, as well as Citizens Bank. “It demands more than being a top performer in your job. It demands that individuals build credible networks that evidence their reputation as an industry expert and respected leader in the community.”

Unlike a job interview, the process to get into the selection pool of potential board members is often murky and does not come with a proven playbook.

Although many would-be board candidates assume that their HR manager can serve as a direct champion of such appointments, an HR manager’s role is that of an influencer or facilitator rather than a direct champion, according to Linda Forte, senior vice president, Business Affairs, and chief diversity officer, Comerica Bank.

“HR managers are often involved in drafting search factors like core competency requirements and identifying qualified search firms to assist in the recruitment process, as opposed to making direct recommendations,” said Forte.

A firm’s general counsel, who may be responsible for organizational governance as well as other executives familiar with organizational corporate culture, and trusted external advisors are more likely to be called upon for board recommendations than other executives, according to Forte.


Experience is a must, particularly financial experience, according to Joyce Hayes Giles, senior vice president, Customer Service, DTE Energy, who was tapped to serve on the board of Health Alliance Plan in 2011 following appointments to board seats on the American Association of Blacks in Energy and the DTE Energy Foundation, in addition to the boards of the Music Hall, Oakwood Hospital, St. John Providence Health System, Wayne State University Alumni Association and Belle Isle Conservancy.

“Achieving a seat on a corporate board requires deep experience of 10 years or more,” said Forte, who emphasizes that external activities become as important as internal accomplishments in the board selection process.

“It’s a diplomatic process,” she concluded. “There’s a fine line between networking and expressing interest in a possible board seat and over-promoting yourself. The adage that it’s easier to find a job when you are employed applies here. Many senior level officers assume that if you have to announce your qualifications, you are probably not the right candidate. They are looking for the self-evident candidate.”

Despite obstacles, preparation is key, according to Hayes Giles.

“Preparation is a common requisite whether you are seeking internal career advancement or external opportunities,” she said. “You have to walk the walk. If you don’t possess the education, experience and track record desired, you are not as likely to get tapped.”

While savvy senior level decision makers seek diversity, appointing a new board member ultimately is a goal-based process, according to Jack Riley, senior vice president of marketing, Fifth Third Bank, whose announcement of the appointment of General Motors Director of Corporate Relations and president of the GM Foundation Vivian Pickard to its board of directors raised resounding applause among Detroiters who cite, that despite advances, too few women of color are tapped for open board seats.