Women Chairs: Who Does the Work?

by Julie Graber | on 27 Mar 2020

Women who make it to the boardroom outpace men in appointment to leadership roles. ow.ly/UfzW30qoK5a #womenonboards @diligentHQ

That was one of my tweets from last week. The research it references found that women directors step into leadership positions on boards - board chair, lead director, and committee chairs - up to two years faster than men. (Don’t get too excited - the women still hold only 7% of the board chair/lead director positions globally - faster hasn’t translated into more).

The research is important for a couple of reasons:

  • it suggests that the women being selected to serve on these boards are not being invited to be mere placeholders (who should be seen and not heard) or "tokens". They are being sought for specific skills and strengths they can bring to the table, and those strengths are being put to work. 
  • It also suggests that boards are looking across a broader range of experiences for board nominees - not just CEOs, which has, in the past, been seen as a prerequisite (at least for the women).

I think there’s an additional reason here that isn’t mentioned in the report, and that is that women are often asked to take on roles that involve organization and facilitation. Women handle the people logistics, whether it’s their families, or volunteer organizations, or places of businesses.

I’m sure that women directors feel like they need to demonstrate that they have a right to be at the table, and one way to do that is to step up and agree to serve as a chair. If they’re like me, they may also see this type of leadership role as a conduit to gaining a better understanding of the organization more quickly. The chair roles require more interaction with the CEO and with the other board members, which also help women directors build working relationships and shorten their learning curve.

So it doesn’t really surprise me that women step into these organizing roles sooner than their male counterparts. But there’s a concern in the back of my head that I can’t quite put my finger on.

It may be that I’m worried that the organizing and facilitating required to run committees will limit women’s ability to have a strategic impact. It might also be a fear that the additional work will lead to burn-out and shorter tenures for women serving on these boards.

And maybe it’s that I’m so used to see the glass half empty that I can’t tell when it’s actually half full.