Despite a record number of new appointments to Fortune 500 boards in 2016, diversity progress for women in this group slipped into reverse.
It was the first decline in female appointments since 2009 when Heidrick & Struggles' Board Monitor first started tracking non-executive director trends. The study also found headway for African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Asian-Americans remained uneven.
The 421 vacant or newly created seats filled in 2016 outpaced the previous high of 399 appointments in 2015 and greatly exceeded the low of 279 appointments in 2010 during the eight-year period since the inception of the annual study.
Of the 421 available seats in 2016, women assumed 117, or 27.8%, down from 29.8% in 2015. And the figure for 2015 was only slightly higher than the figure for 2014, suggesting that the slowdown was already under way.
In 2014 we projected that at the then-current growth rate women would account for 50% of newly appointed directors for the first time in 2024. In light of the data in 2015, we calculated that it would take an additional two years for female director appointments to reach parity with male director appointments.
Now, given the decline in the growth rate in 2016, we estimate that women would not achieve parity with men until 2032.
Consumer industry boards appointed the largest number of women overall -some 35 out of the total of 117. Industrial boards appointed 28 female directors, financial services boards appointed 17, and technology boards, 16. But while consumer boards appointed the largest number of women overall, those appointments represented only about one quarter of all available board seats in the industry.
In business and professional services the 13 seats taken by women represented half of all new directorships in the industry. In technology the 17 positions filled by women represented 40% of all new directorships in the industry. Women took 30% of available seats in the life sciences industry, 28% of the seats in the financial services industry, and 21% in the industrial sector.
The relatively large percentage of technology seats that went to women offers one bright spot in an otherwise dim picture for gender diversity. It's no secret that the technology industry, and Silicon Valley in particular, has a poor record when it comes to placing women in senior positions, including at the board level. The question is whether this year's percentage of female appointments promises better things to come or is...