Ginny Wilson-Peters' Blog
“I’ve served on a number of boards where I was the only woman. The first time, I looked around the room and said, ‘This is wrong’.” Ruth Harkin, during Q&A portion of Des Moines Women in the Boardroom session. She went on to say that not only do women need to be vocal about raising the number of women on boards, but men need to have an awareness and a voice about it as well.
Last Tuesday I attended an excellent session in Des Moines called “Women in the Boardroom”. http://www.womenintheboardroom.com/. The panel speakers were Ruth Harkin, attorney and retired Senior VP, United Technologies Corporation; Dr Sheila McGuire Riggs, Chair of the Department of Primary Care, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, and Mary O’Keefe, Senior VP and Chief Marketing Officer, The Principal Financial Group. The panel was facilitated by Mary Kramer, retired Ambassador.
The intention of the 2 hour panel was to hear from these women about their experiences on public, private and not-for-profit boards in order to encourage more women to get involved with board at all of these levels. The overwhelming message from the panel was this, “Yes, you ARE qualified to be board members.” In the past five years, the number of women on public and private boards has barely changed and we women need to take ahold of the opportunity to change these numbers.
I left inspired and informed and wanted to share just a few of my notes with you. Many of these stories are relevant for men as well as women. Please note that the items in quotes are based on what I wrote down as having heard the women say and I have not checked them with the speakers themselves.
Ruth Harkin shared a story that she decided in her late twenties that she wanted to be on the Iowa Board of Regents. She kept moving toward that goal, and 30 years later, in 2005, was named to the board.
Ruth also shared another inspiring story. She was in her forties and working as an attorney. She was also pursuing opportunities to serve on a publicly held board. At the same time that she had an opportunity to serve on the Conoco Phillips Board, she was also offered a job with United Technologies. Unfortunately United Technologies didn’t want her on outside boards. After careful thought, she told United that would be a deal breaker for her as she really wanted to serve on the Conoco Board. United came back a day later and said they would make an exception.
Her advice: “You have to be aggressive and let people know you want to be on boards.” Once on a board she talked about the importance of doing your homework and also going into the workplaces of the business. “Your ability to be effective keeps changing because the needs change and the dynamics of the board will also change.” You said we have to stay current in order to continue to have the credibility to raise the issues.
Dr Sheila Riggs told the group that the state of Iowa is one of only 2 states in the U.S. where state wide boards and commissions are required to be 50% women. In talking about serving on not-for-profit boards, she suggested women join because 1) you have a passion; 2) it is great networking opportunity and 3) it is great training for leadership. She also reminded us that women need to be very proactive about championing other women for board membership.
Mary O’Keefe said her journey began when she started volunteering. She also staffed boards and commissions for her organization. The private board memberships came to her as a result of relationships she built over the years. She did say however that is important for people to have clear expectations for what boards require of their members. One other great piece of advice she gave was that you have to be willing to ask the tough questions. “Being polite isn’t a good idea as a board member.”
Of note: Four out of eleven members of the board of The Principal Financial Group are women. This was previously five but a retired board seat has yet to be filled.
During the Q&A session, someone asked “Norway mandates that a certain percentage of board membership be filled by women. Do you think we should have a requirement in the US of our corporate boards?”
Well now, that certainly opened up a discussion. But rather than share the thoughts, I’ll toss it out to you. Should we legislate that a certain number of women be required on our boards?