Women on Boards: Where We Stand

by Julie Graber | on 19 Nov 2016

My presentation notes from the 2020 Women on Boards National Conversation at Otterbein University in Columbus, Ohio.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Which I guess is my way of saying that it’s either a really good time to look at the data as it relates to women in leadership roles or a really disheartening time to think about women who’ve made it to the top.

What I do know is it is not a good time – between the election and an upcoming birthday - to realize that I had been working on getting more women in leadership roles for nearly 40 years - since my freshman year in college – when I realized that women can and must help run the world (to borrow a phrase from Marie Wilson).

But look at the data we must, as it is often the best indicator of what we have accomplished and how much work we still have to do. Someone recently suggested that young women starting their careers today would be retiring before we achieved gender equality in the workplace. Regardless of your political affiliation, I think this is something that we can all agree is unacceptable.

Central Ohio

In my most recent analysis for the Central Ohio Leadership Census, women held 20% of the seats on the boards of the 29 public companies headquartered in Central Ohio, a number that compares favorably with the percentage of women directors in the S&P 500 even though Central Ohio numbers includes smaller companies that tend to have less diversity than the boards of larger, more visible companies.

In addition, the number of board seats held by women is up almost 50% over the past fifteen years, although the actual numbers - from 34 to 50 – represents an increase of just one female director per year (2001 numbers from author’s research).

But there are other positive signs:

Back in 2001, nearly half of the public companies headquartered in Columbus had no women on their board (25 of 52). Today there only 7 companies – 24% of the 29 total – with no women on their boards.

State of Ohio

In Ohio, according to an analysis by 2020 Women on Boards of 62 Fortune 1000 companies headquartered in the state,

  • 19.5% of the board seats are held by women

  • and only 5 companies have no women serving

If you expand that number to the 92 companies in Ohio in the Russell 3000, incorporating more of the smaller companies, the percentage of seats held by women is still a respectable 17.8% (author’s research).

United States

Nationally, for the 810 companies that 2020 Women on Boards has tracked since 2011, 19.7% of the board seats are held by women, an increase from 14.6% in five years (but still just one percentage point a year).

Catalyst reports a similar number – 19.9% for the companies in the S&P 500.

The numbers are less encouraging when expanded to the Russell 3000, as reported by ION in its 2016 Annual Update of Women Directors and Executive Officers in the Regions:

  • In 2015, women held only 14% of the board seats in Russell 3000 companies

  • And while 12% of these companies (350) had 3 or more women on their boards, 37% have only one woman serving (1050), and 28% (almost 800) still have no women on their boards.


Internationally, the percentage of seats held by women ranges from 40% in Norway to just over 3% in Japan, and even lower numbers in a number of Asian Pacific and Middle Eastern countries.

Countries that did better than the United States in an analysis by MSCI of over 4200 global companies in late 2015 included Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Curacao, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Sweden, and the UK.

Many, but not all of these are countries have implemented quotas or voluntary targets in order to boost the number of women serving on corporate boards.

Stalled Progress

Our progress, as I outlined above, has been extremely slow. The business case – the idea that having a diversity of people on a team delivers better results – has really fallen on deaf ears. And the roadblocks remain the same.

We continue to resist attempts to encourage more diversity on corporate boards through public policy.

Earlier in 2016, the SEC promised to develop stronger diversity disclosure requirements for public companies, but nothing has been announced and it’s doubtful it will happen in the current/future political climate.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s Gender Diversity in Corporate Leadership bill, introduced in March 2016, would have required the SEC to establish an advisory group to make recommendations to increase gender diversity on boards and strengthen diversity disclosure requirements. In spite of the fact that in an unprecedented move, the US Chamber of Commerce expressed their support for the legislation, there has been no action on it, and it will likely die at the end of this congressional session in January.

In a limited number of cases, states have stepped up: CA, IL, and MA adopted resolutions in support of gender diversity on boards. Here in Ohio, Representatives Greta Johnson & Kristin Boggs introduced a resolution similar to the ones passed in these states, making recommendations for number of women directors based on size of board – but the resolution never got past being assigned to a committee.

To suggest the lack of progress is frustrating is to state the obvious – we bemoan the state of affairs but we also have no answers.

Board directors bristle at the idea of quotas, defending the current way of doing things on the basis of merit, ignoring the statistical improbability that a merit system would result in 85% of board seats being held by men.

We reject voluntary targets and stronger disclosure requirements with arguments that board candidates must be qualified and experienced – ignoring the fact that by inference, we are suggesting that female board candidates won’t be - qualified and experienced. And frankly, the pushback comes from women as often as it does from men.

So I come back to the number 40 – 40 years of waiting for the pipeline to deliver on its promise. And I’m still waiting.