Board seats still elude minority women
By Melita Marie Garza
|Offering to help corporate boards in searching for women directors, Christie Hefner, chairman and chief executive of Playboy Enterprises, co-founded an executive search firm, the Directors' Council, this year.
Bloomberg News Service
The study, by New York-based researcher Catalyst, found that women hold 13.6 percent of all
Fortune 500 board seats, up from 12.4 percent in 2001. Minority women hold just 145 seats among the 4,774 board members at the Fortune 500 companies reporting such data.
Some companies have made strides in recent months. In May, Chicago-based Old Republic International Corp. named its first female director, Fredricka Taubitz, who is a former chief financial officer of Zenith National Insurance Corp.
But women and minority executives still say overall gains in boardroom diversity fall short and they vow they won't rely on established players to do the job.
Among other initiatives, a group of eight prominent businesswomen with boardroom experience including Christie Hefner, Playboy's chief executive, and Vilma Martinez, a Los Angeles attorney who formerly headed the nation's most prominent Hispanic civil rights group launched their own executive search firm, the Directors' Council, two months ago.
"We are asking corporate boards to let us lead the search for women directors, including minority women directors," said Martinez, who has sat on the board of Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. for 20 years.
"A diverse board helps companies better understand their customers and their employees."
The pair said the scandals surrounding the energy trading firm Enron Corp. and telecommunications giant WorldCom Inc. have put momentum into their cause. That's because the cozy, mostly male insider network of these companies' boards is believed to have played a role in the scandals, leading Congress to mandate corporate board reforms in last year's Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
The act provides stringent rules for board member independence, a requirement that may foster diversity.
But a prime stumbling block for female candidates, regardless of ethnicity, is that some companies consider only current or retired chief executives for board posts.
For example, the board of Chicago-based Smurfit-Stone Corp. has no women directors, though it tried unsuccessfully to recruit two women earlier this year, said Timothy McKenna, vice president for investor relations.
"We will continue to recruit and we will continue to look at women," said McKenna, who noted that Smurfit primarily looked for chief executives or former chief executives to fill its board posts.
Of the Fortune 1000 companies, only 17 have a female chief executive, the Catalyst study found. That's 1.7 percent of the total.
Martinez argues that considering only a pool of chief executives for director spots would be far too narrow a search.
"Board members should be diverse not only in terms of color, but also in terms of discipline," said Martinez, who also is a board member of Fluor Corp., an engineering firm, and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp.
"I find the corporate boards are interested in my experience," said Martinez, who also was a member of the Board of Regents of the University of California for 14 years, and its chairman for two years.
"They say, 'She grew up poor in Texas. She's worked in California. She went to law school in New York. She's Mexican American. Let's see what she thinks.' They see that different perspectives can help the bottom line."
Others agree. Three years ago, David Gomez revamped his Chicago-based executive search firm, David Gomez & Associates, to focus on recruitment of minority board directors and corporate executives.
Earlier this year, Gomez's privately held firm placed Alejandra Perez-Tamayo, head of surgery for Mercy Hospital in Chicago, and Desiree Rogers, senior vice president of Chicago-based Peoples Energy Corp., on the board of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois
Rogers also recently joined the board of Chicago-based Equity Residential.
"You want the people appointed to a board to have a broad range of management skills, but they don't have to be a CEO," said Rogers, who holds an MBA from Harvard Business School. "Boards should be asking: 'What are we missing?' Every board has different needs."