With a nod to Scottish singer-songwriter Emeli Sandé —who broke a sales record this year with her debut album that The Beatles had held for nearly 50 years—we women continue to succeed as natural entrepreneurs and business talent in a wide array of fields and industries, and there is much hard data to back up what success looks like across individual accomplishment in small, middle and major markets. While Sandé is on the creative side of the music business, discipline, self-confidence to wield clout and unending drive helped her reach that milestone, and those qualities are an excellent match with innate leadership. But, while more women break records, glass ceilings and barriers of all kinds, one thing we can’t quite do is break through to the boardroom in acceptable numbers.
And what is acceptable? The number of women who hold board directorships changes according to geography, C-Suite tenure, business network, industry, notability, size of company, public vs. private and executive management role and level, to name several variables. While leadership performance and capability should matter, there are significant hurdles in place for women in 2013 to reach gender parity on boards. I’ve pulled some statistics and quotes from leading sources that, while they are by no means exhaustive, shine a light on women “leading at the table.” Mostly, information was sourced from the last two years. Let’s look first at percentages of women in business in the United States.
Catalyst.org published research and data updated one month ago showing how thin the air gets at the top of the pyramid. Although women make up 46.9% of the total U.S. labor force—holding 51.5% of management, professional and related occupations—as you climb the pyramid the percentages drop off sharply. Based on a Catalyst Census focused on the Fortune 500 and the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2012, 14.3% of women are executive officers, 8.1% are considered top earners and 4.2% are CEOs. Only 16.6% of board seats are held by women. Breaking down statistics by region in 2012, the northeast came in a winner with women holding 18.2% of Fortune 500 board seats. No surprise that New York-metro, Massachusetts and some other New England and Mid-Atlantic states are well represented.
The percentage rise of female corporate board directors in the U.S. is also slight when compared to a few earlier years, and when you examine board seats held by women in other countries, we do not even rank in the top five. Norway, Sweden, Finland, France and the U.K. are the leaders—with a whopping 40.9% of board seats in Norway held by women. Norway’s government mandates that quota, by the way. The U.S. ranks nine among the countries. According to an article by Carmen Nobel in Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge newsletter … “Companies with female board representation routinely outperform those with no women on the board, per a recent study by the Credit Suisse Research Institute.” The same article features research by Boris Groysberg, a professor of Business Administration at HBS. A partial quote of his underlines the core issue of the relationship of diversity to performance: “Diversity is about counting the numbers; inclusiveness is about making the numbers count.”