A Seat at the Table: How Women Can Get the Board Positions They Deserve

While the number of board positions filled by women is increasing, the overall pool of women serving on boards isn’t growing at the same rate because firms tend to elect women who have board experience – so the barriers to entry are pretty high.

I am often asked about my board experience and how I was able to make my way onto these boards, so I thought I’d provide some answers to a few of those questions here.

How did you get on to your first board? What was the most important step you took?

I became a corporate board member at age 38. By then, I had four kids, and my company – Pinnacle Group – had been a successful 14-year-old business. For me, it took a lot of networking, business experience, and hard work.

But, even more importantly, it took having role models. I’ve always said: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” And so, meeting other women like Linda Alvarado who was a board member at Pepsi and 3M, Maria Sastre who sat on the board of Laidlaw International, and Vilma Martinez who served on the board of Anheuser-Busch, made me realize that, if they could do it, I could do it too.

What are corporations looking for when choosing a new member of their board?

Having served on multiple publicly traded corporate boards, I can say that board needs, requirements, and culture are different from one corporation to another. On top of that, every industry is different, so you can’t necessarily compare.

However, all boards look for members who can solve problems and help make the company better and provide diversity of thought. So, if you have a unique skillset or a unique perspective that will help accomplish those goals, make sure they know about it.

Experience seems to be a key requirement for most board seats, but how can a woman gain experience if they don’t have any to begin with?

Women who want to serve on boards need to develop and demonstrate a proven track record of leadership. Having governance experience is a necessity for most board positions. If you’ve never served on a corporate board before, join a nonprofit board and get involved with governance.

I also recommend taking governance courses if possible. I took the one at Harvard Business School and benefitted tremendously from the teaching and from the ecosystem. The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) also offers a program that several directors I know completed prior to being elected to boards and they cannot say enough about how much it helped them. 

Finally, it’s also critical to let people who can help you know that you want to join a board. Intentional networking is one of the most powerful ways to be recommended for board service. 

What are some common mistakes that women make when it comes to trying to become a board member?

Some of the common mistakes all board applicants make include: not doing their research and not knowing the key differences between private and public boards, or between the board of a startup company and a large corporation. Different types of boards deal with different issues and often have their own distinct challenges, so it helps having at least a general idea of what those challenges might be going in.

However, the biggest mistake many women make is not applying to boards at all because they don’t believe they can succeed. This is one of the reasons why I became part of the Women on Boards 2020, Dallas-Fort Worth Campaign Committee, an initiative that aims to increase the percentage of women on corporate boards by at least 20% by 2020 through empowering women and educating the public about the importance of this issue.

Do you think there is still unconscious bias at certain corporations when it comes to having women on their board?

Unconscious bias does still exist in many corporations. But we are moving in the right direction. More and more companies are realizing that by increasing the diversity of their board and leadership teams, they also help maximize their performance. For example, according to a recent report from Catalyst, the return on equity for Fortune 500 companies with more women board directors is 53% higher than for those with the fewest women board directors.

At the end of the day, there is a clear value proposition for having more women serving on boards. I hope that by having these conversations and shedding more light on this issue, we will help more companies understand this.