Women’s progress on boards ‘disappointing’

By Maria Saporta
Friday, October 23, 2009

Women have made little to no progress on the boards or in the executive suites of Georgia’s public companies.

The Board of Directors Network (BDN) has been tracking the status of women in corporate boardrooms and executives suites for 17 years. Although there have been significant changes among Georgia’s publicly held companies over the years, as some companies have gone private and others have been acquired, the percentage of women directors and corporate officers has remained relatively flat.

A just-issued 2009 study shows that only 45 percent of Georgia’s 160 public companies have at least one woman on their board — the lowest percentage in seven years. In 2004 and 2007, that percentage was at 49 percent, the highest it’s ever been.

“We have never made it to even 50 percent,” said Rona Wells, BDN’s executive director, who works on the study every year.

The study includes information available at these public companies up until the data cutoff date of July 24, 2009.

Readers may view the entire report at www.boarddirectorsnetwork.org.

There are a total of 1,319 board seats in Georgia’s public companies, and women hold 100 of those seats — 7.6 percent. That actually is a slight improvement when compared with 2008 when it was at 7.5 percent and 7.4 percent in 2007.

Among all of Georgia’s 160 publicly held companies, only one corporation has more than two women directors — The Coca-Cola Co., which has three.

Of Georgia’s 13 Fortune 500 companies in the study, only one does not have a woman board member — AGCO Corp. — a farm equipment manufacturer. Nine of those Fortune 500 companies have two women directors. The two other Fortune 500 companies — Delta Air Lines Inc. and Mohawk Industries Inc. — each have one woman director.

In looking at the percentage of women directors at Georgia’s 50 largest publicly held companies, the trend is not encouraging: 66 percent have women on their boards, down from 72 percent in 2008. Among all the actual board seats of the top 50 companies, 9.7 percent are held by women, exactly the same percentage as in 2008.

“The lack of progress is very disappointing,” said Miriam Burgess, BDN’s 2009 president who is vice president of AON Consulting Inc. in Atlanta. “Women directors and women officers are good for business.”

To reinforce that point, the Wellesley Centers for Women, a social science organization at Wellesley College dedicated to gender research, has done a project called “Critical Mass on Corporate Boards: Why Three or More Women Enhance Governance.”

“You can’t say every board ought to have 50 percent women directors because every company has to do what’s right for them,” Wells said. “But certainly, just having one or two women on their boards is not enough.”

BDN helps companies find qualified women directors. It has a database of “board-ready candidates” to help companies diversify their boards.

“People understand the importance of having the right qualifications,” Burgess said. “The worst thing we can do is have a company put a woman on their board just because they’re a woman.”

Fewer women executives, too

BDN also looks at the executive officer positions that are listed in Securities and Exchange Commission filings. In looking at the 160 public companies, only two have women as chairs; and only three have women as CEOs. Both those numbers are unchanged since 2007.

There are 12 women chief financial officers, down from 15 in 2008; and there are seven women general counsel, which is down from 10 a year ago.

In all, there are 885 executive officers listed in the SEC filings of Georgia’s public companies, and 76 of those (8.6 percent) are held by women. In 2007, there were a total of 924 executive officers with 95 of those women (10.3 percent).

BDN also tracks the number of women of color (African-American, American Indian, Alaska native, Asian, Hispanic or Latina) on the boards of Georgia public companies. Of all directors at those companies, only 1.5 percent are held by women of color. That is an improvement over the past seven years, when only 1 percent of the seats were held by women of color.

“The pace of change is pretty glacial,” Wells said. “Unless we do something different, it’s going to stay at the pace we are in adding and losing women directors. It’s not ever going to move a whole lot.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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