Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has told America’s women to Lean In to our jobs rather than give up, and many of us have listened. More than 40 percent of women are the breadwinners in our households. Close to 8 million women own their businesses.
Now comes the next frontier.
Women are making headway in one of the most difficult environments to bring about change: corporate leadership.
Slowly, but definitively, women are entering the exclusive executive suite and boardroom.
A report released this week by 2020 Women On Boards shows progress in board gender diversity at Fortune 1000 companies.
Women now hold 17.7 percent of Fortune 1000 board seats, compared to 14.6 percent three years ago. The findings signal that 2020 Women on Boards is a step closer to its goal. Based in Boston, 2020 Women On Boards is a national campaign to increase the percentage of women on U.S. company boards to 20 percent or more by the year 2020.
“Large companies are moving forward, they’re getting it,” said Stephanie Sonnabend, co-founder of 2020 Women on Boards. “We’re encouraged by what we’re seeing.”
In Florida, women are making headway in corporate leadership, too. Florida’s Women Executive Leadership, in partnership with 2020 Women On Boards, conducted a 2014 Census of Women Directors and Officers. That count, also released this week, shows women now hold 11.8 percent of board seats at Florida’s top 100 pubic companies, up from 8.8 percent four years ago.
“The needle is finally moving in a positive direction,” said Michelle Eisner, president of Women Executive Leadership and chief human resources officer with Hollander Sleep Products. “Boards are realizing women have a lot to contribute, including a new perspective on company issues.”
On Thursday, Women Executive Leadership, in which I hold a board position, will honor Florida companies that have helped to increase gender diversity by placing women on their boards or in executive positions. Among the Florida companies that added women to their boards are car giant AutoNation and shared vacation provider Interval Leisure Group.
While the numbers are moving in the right direction, there is a long way to go to get to significant female board participation.
Eisner said women need to push harder for progress if they are to make U.S. boardrooms more representative of the population at large: “There still is work to be done.”
As a consumer, I find it difficult to understand corporate reluctance to make leadership reflect varied customer perspectives. Research consistently shows that companies with diverse boards are more profitable and provide a higher return on shareholder value. And still, some companies have no interest in diversifying their boards or advancing women in leadership.
Women Executive Leadership’s Florida Census shows 71.4 percent of the state’s top 100 public companies still have no female executives and about a third of the companies have no women on their boards. Oddly, these are companies many women patronize, including Burger King, Spirit Airlines and Norwegian Cruise Line.
“The numbers are still not acceptable,” Eisner said.
Some believe that broadening the requirements for directors will lead to change, placing less emphasis on prior public company board experience and more on the expertise of the candidate.
In February, Miami’s Perry Ellis International, a global designer, licensor and distributor of clothing and accessories, added Alexandra Wilson to its seven-member board. Wilson, co-founder of Gilt and co-founder/CEO of Glamsquad brings an expertise in e-commerce and Internet marketing that CEO George Feldenkreis says his company needed. “I felt she was uniquely qualified, and I invited her to come on our board.”
Others understand the bottom-line benefits. Carnival Corp., the world’s biggest cruise line, finds gender diversity on its board to be crucial at a time when at least 70 percent of household buying decisions — including travel purchases — are made by women. Two of its nine board members are women who bring expertise in national retail sales, marketing and distribution.
Carnival president and CEO Arnold Donald calls diversity of thinking in the Carnival boardroom “a powerful advantage” and adds, “It would be foolish not to have those insights and perspectives at the highest levels of the corporation.”
Yet, in the campaign for gender diversity, women need to do their part, too.
We must get past the real or perceived work/life balance concerns or lack of confidence that prevent us from going for top corporate jobs or board positions.
“Women say they would love to be on a board, but that isn’t enough,” said Bonnie Crabtree, office managing director of executive search firm Korn Ferry in Miami. “They must research what boards are looking for, their own experience, and work to close the gaps.”
Crabtree said qualified women need to believe they can do the job and step up for consideration. “Women worry more about travel or the time investment to be on a board or getting permission from their CEO, and they unconsciously take themselves out of the running.”
Crabtree has been working with Women Executive Leadership as a member of its advisory board to help prepare women with the skills, résumé and the mindset to take advantage of board opportunities that arise.
Still, there is another big reason for the dearth of women in boardrooms and corner offices — a lack of interest in change. Companies still have not realized what is in their own best interest; of the 861 board seats at the Florida’s biggest public companies, 101 are held by women.
“We have no opposition. No one will stand up and say they are against having women on board,” said Sonnabend, who not only co-founded 2020 Women on Boards but also sits on several large corporate boards. “Our opposition is apathy. It’s men saying the board is fine the way it is.”
Organizations such as 2020 Women on Boards and Women Executive Leadership are building directories, providing education and mentor programs, creating networking opportunities, addressing confidence and even working one-on-one with companies to create change.
“We’ve got to get the message out,” Sonnabend said. “This issue is really about diversity of thought. It is not that women are better in any way — it is just that they think differently, and companies can benefit from that.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly referenced the number of women executives at Jacksonville-based Stein Mart.