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• Women on Board: A Breakfast to Support Women’s Leadership

December 20 2018
December 20 2018

In September of this year, California governor Jerry Brown signed landmark legislation SB 826 into law, requiring female representation on corporate boards based in the state. The law, which was sponsored by California Senator Hannah Beth Jackson, was a direct response to the dismal state of women’s leadership in corporate America. Case in point? Roughly a quarter of publicly traded companies headquartered in California have no women directors. That’s right. None.

To celebrate the new law’s passing, Confluence convened a women’s breakfast at JPMorgan’s office in San Francisco. More than 60 women with varied backgrounds in finance and philanthropy came together to discuss the law’s implementation, challenges, and other strategies to support women’s leadership within foundation and corporate boards.

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There is no question that more women are needed in governance. “So few of us are connected to corporate America and what happens there,” said speaker Surina Khan, CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California. “To have women in board seats is essential.” It’s not just women who benefit from increased leadership opportunities, according to speaker Kristin Hull, Founder of Nia Global Solutions. “When you have more women in leadership, the bottom line improves.”

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SB 826 cites extensive data that show that companies with female leadership have higher earnings, higher returns on equity, and improved governance. Of the world’s largest companies, those with women directors out-perform comparable businesses with all-male boards by a whopping 26%.

While Surina highlighted the importance of policy and community activism, Hull talked about ways that investors can change board composition. Earlier this fall, she said, Melinda Gates had an epiphany about women in realizing that they are important to her strategy. “If Melinda wrote women into her investment policy statement, she could change the entire landscape with one sentence.”

Still, there has been pushback to the law, particularly from some men. That’s to be expected, according to Khan and Hull. But, they noted, the legislation allows companies to add board seats to accommodate the law, rather than replacing existing board members, and they have until 2021 to comply.

The group then heard from Catherine Chen, Managing Director at RBC Wealth Management and a board member of the East Bay Community Foundation. Chen is no stranger to trailblazing. “My whole career has been me as an Asian woman sitting alone at a table, being the only one,” she laughed. But she has never let that stop her.

When Chen wanted to be more involved in her community, she took the plunge and joined a non-profit board. Though she was in over her head (by her own admission), she rolled up her sleeves, did her homework, and leaned on staff to get up to speed. “Just go for it!” Chen said. “Men do it all the time. They figure it out. They have the courage to just do it.”

Though joining a board can require heavy lifting, she said it’s worth it. The new energy can sharpen the board’s focus. “Ask tough questions,” she said, “challenge assumptions, and don’t be afraid to look dumb.”

 

speakers

Speakers from breakfast (left to right): Dana Lanza, Confluence Philanthropy; Suzanne Biegel, Catalyst at Large; Catherine Chen, RBC Wealth Management; Surina Khan, The Women's Foundation of California; Kristin Hull, Nia Global Solutions

Looking ahead

Susan Biegel, Founder of Women Effect, then facilitated a discussion around three fundamental questions. Participants broke into small groups to discuss.

Question 1: How do we handle pushback?

Participants had many ideas for ways to respond to resistance to the law.

  • Support lawyers to fight legal challenges.

  • Work with the Bay Area Council to leverage its lobbying power with congressional leaders.

  • Create a media strategy that shames companies and forces them to take action.

  • Continually push for improved data, transparency, and accountability.

  • Get young people involved.

  • Use our power as consumers. Be loud!

  • Instigate shareholder actions.

Participants mentioned ally organizations to check out, including Gender Fair, a new organization trying to make business’ gender performance transparent, and As You Sow. Biegel reminded participants to also remember the power of the op-ed. “Everyone looks at California—we have huge influence if we get this right. But we can also learn from Norway. We shouldn’t see the same 15 women on every board!”

Question 2: How do we create a pipeline of qualified female candidates?

One participant talked about Boardroom Africa, a program that wanted to address the lack of corporate female leadership across Africa. The organization found women, got them board-ready, and brought investors on board to fund it. In a year and a half, they have built a powerhouse network with 500 board-ready women across the continent. Philanthropists and investors can fund that kind of
effort—both in Africa and here in the U.S.

Other participants recommended that women look at how they’re currently using their voice, influence, and power—and to be sure that they’re always suggesting women when board openings come up. And there were calls to recruit more women of color for board development programs to help build that pipeline.

Question 3: How can we ensure we’re driving capital with a gender lens?

Biegel asked the room a few questions. “How many of you are on a foundation board?” she asked, to a show of hands. “How many would like to be? How many feel ready? What’s holding you back?”

Participants cited multiple barriers: time pressure, a lack of opportunity, not knowing how to go about it, and a lack of compensation. It was clear that this conversation was just a beginning as women step into the power on both corporate and foundation boards. “Women are the key to unlocking everything,” said one participant.

Building off of the energy in the room, Suzanne Biegel left attendees with a rallying cry. “This is a unique moment. Now is the time to just go for it.”

Confluence holds a quarterly event series, nationally, for women in the investment industry. We are building power through peer support, sharing, learning, and advocacy. To learn more about the Confluence Womens’ Leadership Initiative contact our CEO, Dana Lanza.


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