(WOMENSENEWS)–Cynthia Cohen, president of Strategic Mindshare, a consulting firm in Menlo Park, Calif., sits on the boards of three national companies with such well-known names as Sports Authority and Office Depot. While she acknowledges that it took hard work and dedication in her field to be recognized enough to be invited to sit on these boards, she says it is still a challenge for women who aspire to become board members. She recommends that women network in and out of their fields in order to gain recognition and try to sit on corporate committees in areas in which they are expert.

“Women are now more equal to the guys when it comes to sitting on boards, no doubt, but there is still a lot that needs to be done to make it equal,” Cohen says. “For instance, not enough women run committees of major boards.”

The numbers are indeed improving, according to Catalyst, a New York City research organization that studies issues and trends on women and business. The organization’s 2001 Census of Women Board Directors found that 12.4 percent of all Fortune 500 board directors were female, compared to just 8.3 percent in 1993, when the study was first conducted.

Only five women are chief executive officers in Fortune 500 companies, up from two in 1999, according to Catalyst. The explanation for their relative scarcity is well known: the glass ceiling and the failure of management to recognize the attainments and potential of women.

“This is not a huge leap, but it certainly is a significant one,” says Mathieu Belanger, senior research associate at Catalyst. “These are the women who are obtaining the high executive titles and rising the most quickly in their industries.”

In addition, 87 percent of Fortune 500 companies have at least one female board director, an increase of 26 percent from the 1993 figure. However, the rate of increase over the past five years has been relatively stable. From 1997 to 2001, there has only been a 3.6 percent increase in the number of companies with women board directors. Assuming the rate of increase remains the same, Catalyst estimates that women would occupy 25 percent of all board seats by the year 2027.

Board Members Top Performers, Money Makers, Recognized in Industries

Industries with the best representation of women on their boards include toys and sporting goods, cosmetics and savings institutions, Belanger says. Those with lower representation include waste management, textiles and automotive retailing.

Women who become board members tend to exceed performance expectations within their companies and become recognized in their industries, Belanger says. They also tend to be in visible positions and often make themselves available to help committees within their companies. They also tend to be in direct money-making positions for their companies, not in support roles.

“Women who are in human resource roles, for example, are not going to be as likely to move up and get that corner office as someone who is in a position to make money for their company,” Belanger says.

Also, look for mentors within a company, both men and women, to help improve one’s visibility, suggests Diahann Lassus, co-owner of Lassus Wherley and Associates, a New Providence, N.J., financial planning firm and former president of the National Association of Women Business Owners. Another way to “put yourself out there” is to seek out speaking engagements and teach at local universities, she says.

“The more you place yourself in visible leadership roles, the more likely you are to move into board positions,” Lassus says.

In addition, before tackling a seat on corporate boards, seek positions on the boards of nonprofits that are meaningful, says Phyllis Hill Slater, president of Hill Slater Inc., a Great Neck, N.Y., engineering and architectural support firm. Hill Slater sits on advisory boards for three companies, including Fleet Bank. She currently sits on about 12 nonprofit boards and has sat on a total of 40 in her lifetime. Since some of these nonprofits have budgets larger than some corporations, being a part of these organizations can be quite prestigious. For instance, Hill Slater is on the board of a major Long Island hospital that has a $4.3 billion budget.

“As a black woman, this has particularly been a challenge,” Hill Slater says. “For instance, I knew of one male board members who has said that he would rather die than have me sit on his board. You have to be tough to deal with comments like that if you want to get ahead and move onto those desired board positions.”

Further advice: Create strong, genuine relationships with those who are in power at your company. “The more you can get to know the decision makers and have them see you both professionally and as a worthy person of good character, the better your chances of getting onto a board of choice,” notes John Challenger, president of Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc., a Chicago-based international out-placement firm. “It’s hard for women to break through the glass ceiling barriers, but they are managing to change decades-long logjams.”

Laura Koss-Feder is an Oceanside, N.Y.,-based free-lance business and features writer. She has written for The New York Times, Money, Time and Business Week.

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