The year was 2000: We were at the peak of the first Nasdaq 5000 era, and around the corner from the Enron and WorldCom scandals and, consequently, Sarbanes-Oxley. Corporate America's boardrooms were overwhelmingly male; of all the directors on Fortune 500 company boards, only 11.7% were women.
"Sixteen years ago, every board was looking for a sitting CEO for their director seats," says Julie Hembrock Daum, who heads the North American Board Practice at Spencer Stuart. For women, directorships were concentrated among a select few. "The same names were always on the candidate list," observes Jill Kanin-Lovers, a board member of Heidrick & Struggles. While some women were being brought onto boards, nominating committees usually reverted to the perceived "safety" of the traditional male CEO as director.
There was a group of us back then who knew each other professionally in New York City--all high-level women executives who were also corporate directors at companies ranging from Nordstrom to Publishers Clearing House. The circle included Julie and Jill, as well as Alison Winter, Barbara Colwell, Elaine Eisenman, and Edie Weiner, and we began to have gatherings around my dining room table to talk about how to be the best directors possible. We saw that women's voices weren't that strongly heard in the boardroom. Nor was there a way for women directors to really connect with each other and learn from each other's often-tough experiences.
Around the table, we began to ask ourselves: How can we help get more qualified women onto boards? And how can we support them in the director role once they get there to be the best directors possible?
Knowing that there is power in numbers, we began to invite other women directors into our fold. Then, after Alison made a professional move to Chicago for a position at Northern Trust, we expanded our network beyond New York, which led to the idea of establishing different "chapters" around the country. Alison and I became co-chairmen of the new organization called Women Corporate Directors. From there, our membership took off, with chapters opening in Washington, D.C., and Boston, and then all over the U.S., supported by our now long-standing sponsor KPMG.
As the push for gender diversity on boards gained traction globally, WCD began to expand overseas, starting in London. Henrietta Holsman Fore--former U.S. Undersecretary of State and, later, director at ExxonMobil, General Mills, and Theravance Inc.--joined as...