Women have gone into space, combat and even the White House—shattering barrier after barrier. And when it comes to marketing, the Association of National Advertisers recently found that 52% of top marketer positions are now held by women. We’re seeing tremendous progress.
That’s why it’s so jarring to learn that women hold fewer than 23% of board seats with companies in the Russell 3000 Index. According to 50/50 Women On Boards, just 5% of the companies have achieved gender-balanced boards. What’s going on here, and why are corporate boardrooms so impervious to the change that’s happening elsewhere?
Having women on boards is good for business. It sets the tone for the company, signaling that women are valued for their work. And it adds a diversity of viewpoints, which can lead to better decision-making and help reduce bias.
It’s good for women, too. Serving on a board is one of the best ways to develop leadership skills, because it provides a front row view to C-suite leaders. It helps build strategic thinking, relational skills, and an understanding of corporate governance and decision-making. And according to a Harvard Business Review study, board service actually increases an executive’s likelihood of being promoted to a first-time CEO of an S&P 1500 firm by 44%.
So how can women break through? These tips recently helped me on my own journey into the boardroom:
1. Know your unique value
Clearly articulate the strengths and perspectives you bring to the table. Do you excel at building systems? Are you a big-picture thinker? Rewrite your bio or resume to emphasize these traits. I focused on my digital marketing acumen and socially conscious leadership and looked for a company that needed these skills and shared my vision.
2. Grow your skills
Have a career plan to gain the skills and experience that would make you a valuable board member. Look for opportunities to take on P&L responsibility, deeply understand your company’s business model, present to your C-suite or board, make decisions for your business unit and build strong cross-functional relationships.
3. Join a nonprofit board
Give back and learn along the way by serving on a nonprofit board. This is a great way to practice new skills and understand the role of a board first-hand. For example, I’ve been honored to serve on the board of WIN, an organization that provides supportive housing for New York City’s homeless families.
4. Build your network
Tap into industry organizations to gain exposure to new ideas, develop long-lasting relationships and get noticed. For example, I’ve met many inspiring professionals through MAKERS, a media brand that accelerates the women’s movement. When you’re ready to make moves, it’s also important to express your desire to join a board so that you’re top of mind when opportunities arise.
5. Seek out mentors
Find role models who have paved the way and get their advice. Researchers have found that it’s particularly beneficial for women to have a tight inner-circle to provide support and trusted information. In fact, 77% of the highest-achieving women in their study had strong ties with two to three other women. When I was weighing two different board opportunities, I relied on advice from a few of my closest women mentors to help me decide.
6. Access programs and workshops
There are lots of resources geared toward getting more women on boards. For example, Sukhinder Singh Cassidy founded theBoardlist to connect a database of qualified and endorsed women with opportunities. You can also find organizations and recruiting firms that offer executive training, workshops, and expert advice to help you in your process.
Joining a board won’t happen overnight but following these steps can help set you up for success. Remember to do your research on each company you talk with, focus on the unique value you bring to the table, and negotiate any offers you receive.
After going through this process myself, I’m excited to join the board of Raaka Chocolate, a bean-to-bar brand known for their unroasted chocolate bars. Raaka Chocolate is a socially responsible company, and they’re walking the talk by adding not just one but two women to their board. The fact that Raaka is prioritizing a diverse board is a major reason I said yes. Just like their chocolate, equality is sweet.