By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on November 29, 2013
Not so long ago, it appeared that a quota system was being used when a woman would be named to the board of a public company.
But the 2013 study by OnBoard, formerly the Board of Directors Network, reveals that many of Georgia’s public companies have moved beyond the quota system when it comes to women directors.
Three companies — Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. (CCE), The Coca-Cola Co. and EarthLink Inc. — each have four women directors. Last year, only CCE could claim that distinction. Four other companies have three women directors — United Parcel Service Inc., AGL Resources Inc., State Bank Financial Corp. and The Home Depot Inc.
All of Georgia’s Fortune 500 companies have at least one woman on their boards. The newest entrant to that list — HD Supply Inc. — brought on a woman director in late August — Betsy Atkins, who has served as CEO of Baja Ventures, an independent venture capital firm, since 1994.
Twelve of Georgia’s 15 Fortune 500 companies have at least two women directors, and women hold more than 18 percent of all the board positions in those corporations — the highest that the study has ever recorded.
Just as significantly, steady improvements are being made on the total percentage of board seats among all of Georgia’s public companies. After many years of static numbers, the past five years have shown a steady increase in the percentage of women directors.
The 2013 study showed that 11.5 percent of all board seats of Georgia’s public companies are held by women, the highest since the organization began keeping track in 1993.
It was 10.4 percent in 2012; 9.6 percent in 2011; 8.6 percent in 2010 and 7.6 percent in 2009.
“The numbers have gone up,” said Rona Wells, OnBoard’s executive director. “We think 11.5 percent is good. It’s progress.”
But Constance Dierickx, OnBoard’s 2013 president, pointed to the theme of this year’s annual dinner, held on Nov. 13, when the study was released. The title of this year’s report was: “One Day: There Will Be So Many Women Board Members We’ll No Longer Have To Count Them.”
As Dierickx said: “We look forward to not having to count” the number of women directors on boards, believing that would be when boards reflected the 50-50 percentage of the population.
But she added: “We have moved way beyond the quota system.”
Progress is being made largely because when board positions open up, more companies are considering women to fill those slots. In the past two years, 21 percent of the new board seats have been filled by women — again the highest since OnBoard has been tracking that number.
In all, 59 percent of Georgia’s 124 public companies have at least one woman on their boards. That means that 60 of them still have boards with only men, and men still hold nearly 89 percent of all of the board seats among Georgia’s public companies.
“Our focus has been advocacy and showing company executives the value of having women on their boards,” Dierickx said. “We have a referral service. And we help women promote themselves. We have helped more than a dozen women land board seats directly and indirectly in the past five years.”
Dierickx said that when OnBoard gets the opportunity to meet with CEOs, it provides evidence that having a diverse board can be a key factor in helping improve a company’s performance.
At the annual dinner, John Brock, CEO of CCE, reinforced that belief, adding that two of his seven top executives are women. His wife also is co-owner of the Atlanta Dream WNBA basketball franchise, which he said was the only sports franchise in the eastern United States that is totally owned by women.
Brock also introduced Phoebe Wood, a CCE director who was the 2013 winner of the prestigious Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans Award. Wood also is a director of Invesco Ltd., and Invesco CEO Martin Flanagan also was at the dinner.
Before making his introduction, Brock told the dinner audience about the historical significance of Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans.
She was married to Joseph B. Whitehead. In 1899, Whitehead and an associate approached Coca-Cola with the idea of bottling Coca-Cola, then just a fountain beverage. They secured the exclusive contract to bottle and sell Coca-Cola throughout most of the United States, and their business prospered.
But when Whitehead died in 1906 at the young age of 42, his wife assumed the responsibility of the family’s business affairs, overseeing the expansion of Coca-Cola’s bottling business and the family’s real estate investments.
She was asked to join the Coca-Cola board of directors in 1934, becoming one of the first women to serve on the board of a major American corporation. She was a director of the company for nearly 20 years.
“She was an incredible philanthropist,” said Brock, a Georgia Tech alum, of Whitehead Evans. “She left Coca-Cola stock to Georgia Tech that could never be sold that is now worth $350 million. It is the single largest gift that was ever given to Georgia Tech. We get $15 million a year from her wisdom five decades ago.”
Brock then spoke highly of Wood before honoring her with the award saying she has been on CCE’s board for almost four years.
“Phoebe brings an amazing amount of smartness in auditing and franchise relations to our board,” he said. “She’s aggressive when its time to be aggressive, and she listens when it’s time to listen.”
Upon accepting the award, Wood said she felt a special closeness with Lettie Pate Whitehead Evans, who died the year she was born. She then challenged the room to do what they could to increase the ranks of women on boards and in executive suites of companies.
“We as a business community need to be attracting women to the practice of business,” Wood said. “Everyone in this room has a role — publicize those who are leading in this area and those who are lagging in this area.”