Boardroom Diversity Without Marginalizing Anyone

By Janice Ellig, CEO, Ellig Group

boardroom diversity

C-suite and boardroom diversity in 2022 America

While women have come a long way, we still have far to go before we reach gender parity at the top levels of corporate America. As CEO of a certified women-owned search firm with an unparalleled 20-year track record of placing women and members of underrepresented groups in boardrooms and the C-suite (85% and 80%, respectively), I am deeply engaged with this particular struggle on a daily basis. Given that, what I am about to say may sound like an oxymoron, but it is not. While diversity must be considered a top priority in selecting corporate leadership, it should not be the sole criterion on which a selection is based. Rather, priorities have to be balanced to achieve the best outcomes for good corporate governance.  

Pendulums often swing far to the right and far to the left, spending little time in the center. With the death of George Floyd, a pandemic, a contentious presidential election, inflation, supply chain issues, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, social unrest has reached a high point, and companies are trying to do the right thing to level the playing field. Hiring of women, BIPOC, and other underrepresented groups is currently on the minds of all CEOs, boards, Chief Human Resources Officers, and other leaders – as it should be.  

Crawling towards gender parity

In 1995 there were only 10% women on boards; by 2021 in the S&P 500 the number had risen to 30%. In 26 years, that is a rise of less than 1% per year – hardly an impressive number. However, the greatest progress occurred recently, 2020-2021, with a 2% increase year over year. In short, change, but the pace is still far too slow.  

I have followed this progress closely and was heartened when in 2003 Norway became the first country to pass legislation mandating a 40% quota for women on corporate boards by 2008, and then in 2010, when Dame Helena Morrissey and Lord Davies spearheaded the launch of the 30% Club in the UK. As encouraged as I was at the time by these advances abroad, the fact remains that in the U.S., the pace of change over the past decade remains glacial with the U.S. slipping to #14 globally for women on boards. 

Lose the Boys’ Club, not the boys

Progress for women and underrepresented groups is something mostly everyone supports, at least in theory. Many, like me, would have preferred to see greater acceleration over the last decade rather than just over the past year. The time has come and I believe it is crucial that we continue to push for diversity, but we do so in a manner that prudently moves the needle without excluding any qualified candidates regardless of gender or background.

boardroom diversity

With Ellig Group’s diversity placement record, we welcome and are honored to work with progressive companies who want to change the landscape. That is our objective as well: diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels, starting with the boardroom and C-suite. That said, we also recognize that even the companies with the best intentions can push so hard as to create unintended, counterproductive consequences. Just as companies need to demand panels of highly qualified and diverse candidates, search consultants must have the courage to push back when they feel a more appropriate candidate is being overlooked due to diversity concerns. Our ethical obligation is to ensure that we present slates of exceptional and highly diverse candidates so that our clients have multiple choices, regardless of a candidate’s gender identity, race, national origin and/or sexual orientation. 

Parity in, parity done

In 2015, Steve Odland, now CEO of the Conference board, was a speaker at the Women’s Forum of New York Breakfast of Corporate Champions, an event I founded in 2011 when I was the President of the Women’s Forum of New York, to accelerate progress for Women on boards. Steve made a “clear and present danger” call to action to all CEOs and Board Directors: “The solution is simple […] select a woman for every other opening and your board will reach parity by 2025.” Steve’s math was simple and correct. With approximately 5000 board seats and ~19% held by women at that time, filling about 200 of the 400 S&P openings each year would get us beyond parity. Or, to put it another way, achieving gender parity is absolutely doable without shutting out men. As Deanna Mulligan said at the 2013 Breakfast of Corporate Champions, “This is not rocket science. If we can put a man on the moon, we ought to be able to put more women on boards.” 

What I have learned from my corporate career and from the past 20 years leading an executive search firm, is that achieving a goal is a matter of making it a personal objective. With focus and intentionality as our driver, we can reach gender parity and equitable representation of underrepresented groups in the boardroom and throughout an organization. It is not only the right thing to do, for our employees, our customers, our communities, and our investors, it is a business imperative and good corporate governance. Board diversity can absolutely be achieved without marginalizing anyone.