A key disconnect: women directors and key committee assignments.

Author:Whitler, Kimberly A.

In the past decade, the state of women on boards has improved. With significant interest and attention focused on the number of women who sit on boards, there has been a shift in the Fortune 500 with the percentage of boards that are now more than 32% female having almost quadrupled in that time. While some will look at the trend positively, others will point to the fact that there was only one board in both 2006 and 2016 with more than 50% of its members being female.

Moving Beyond Inclusion

While the debate continues regarding the pace at which progress should occur, we have begun researching a different but related topic--the roles of the women who are on boards. While being admitted to a board is a significant event, not all roles on boards are created equal, and therefore aren't endowed with equal influence. Those individuals who serve as the board chair, lead independent director, audit committee chair, nominating/governance chair, and/or compensation committee chair tend to have significant sway. This is because they serve in key leadership positions that can have influence over important board decisions such CEO selection, who is on the slate of future board members, how executive compensation is structured to align management practices with shareholder interests, and so on.

To better understand the status of female board members and the potential influence they wield, we investigated the roles of the women who sat on the 2016 Fortune 500 companies. (Note: We pulled the names of the companies from the 2016 Fortune 500 list, but the data were pulled from proxies filed in 2015 and 2016 because of the timing of the analysis.) Beyond the core committees mentioned above, there are several additional committees that some boards include such as public policy, human resources, sustainability, technology, patient safety, investment and so on. Women tend to be more likely to chair these more specialized committees than the core committees.

There are a couple of caveats with this analysis. Not all boards have the same name for the committees and some combine committees. Many don't have the non-core committees. For example, the sample for corporate responsibility and public policy was small so we combined them.

The findings are interesting, however, because with roughly 20% female board members, women are beginning to ascend to key roles. However, leadership on core committees lags the more specialized committees, where a woman chairs more than...

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