When it comes to issues of gender equality in the workplace, the presence — or lack, as the case may be — of women on corporate boards is right up there with talk of equal pay and equal representation in the c-suite. In a nutshell, it's a really big deal for women to fill seats in the boardroom.
That's why Executive Women of New Jersey, in conjunction with PricewaterhouseCoopers, is about to release a new study looking at how New Jersey shapes up when it comes to putting more women on corporate boards.
The report, "A Seat at the Table," will be unveiled Tuesday morning during a breakfast where Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup Company, will serve as the keynote speaker. You can bet I'll be there furiously writing down everything she and all the other women there have to say.
But before I get a chance to learn the highly anticipated results, I spoke with two women who hold board positions at New Jersey-based companies to get their take on why it's important to have that seat at the table.
Maureen Breakiron-Evans sits on the boards of Cognizant Technology Solutions, based in Teaneck, and Heartland Payment Systems, based in Princeton, in addition to several other boards with companies outside the state.
First off, I asked her why corporate boards are so important. She explained the power they hold: They are responsible for the hiring and firing and the evaluations of company CEOs, for the oversight of company strategy and for the oversight of financial reporting and controls.
They're a big deal; got it.
And getting women into those positions is so important, Breakiron-Evans said, because having a diversity of opinion is valuable for companies.
"I think it really does change the conversation in the room when you have multiple diverse people on the board, and that diversity can be gender, it can be ethnic, it can be international, it can be coming from different disciplines. It can be along a whole variety of aspects," Breakiron-Evans said.
"In my experience, when the same people have been on a board for 10 years get together and discuss an issue, everybody kind of knows where everybody's head's at," she added. "The more you have different ideas that are being expressed, the more likely you are to settle on the best idea."
Breakiron-Evans has been in business long enough to remember how tough women used to have it. She graduated college in 1976 in the South and worked for a public accounting firm, where some of the clients wouldn't allow a black person or a woman to work on their audits.
Now, times have changed dramatically, but the lack of women in board positions persists. Breakiron-Evans calls it "a pipeline issue."
"In general, as more and more glass ceilings were broken, things got easier and the glass ceiling over the years has moved much higher," she said. "What it really takes on the board, generally, is to have profit and loss responsibility work experience. That means running something, being responsible for the bottom line. And when it comes to trusting women with businesses, I think companies have been more comfortable trusting them in staff positions than with being the top executive."
Doing her part to help, she started Women Corporate Directors, a global organization with more than 2,500 members, to provide a resource for women in those roles, a place to network and a place to talk business.
Julie Dobson is another corporate board member, holding a seat on the board of American Water Works Company, based in Voorhees Township, among four others.
Dobson landed her first spot on a corporate board after a head hunter contacted her, drawn by the skills she gained through a lengthy career at Bell Atlantic and in her work launching her own wireless company, which eventually sold to AT&T.
"It was terrififc to understand the obligations to shareowners and make sure that a board function was not just a rubber stamp to management's requests, that the board debated and thought about the right steps to create value for shareholders," Dobson said. "For me, having just come from a private company where I had a board of venture capitalists, it was really nice to take the other seat."
Having seen first hand what women bring to corporate board positions, Dobson said that diversity is critical for the health of a company.
"It might not be comfortable, but it's very important because that's the nature of the base you're serving, be it the shareholders or the customers of the company," she said. "You don't want nine men who think the same. That's a very risky situation. And you don't want women just for the sake of women."
But she does advocate making an effort to look for qualified women. She is leaving her board position with PNM Resources Company in May, and she is pushing hard to have her seat filled by another woman.
"The average board of public companies consists of a lot of accomplished people, and what I'm trying to do is assure them that there are plenty of accomplished women out there, too. They're just forgotten," Dobson said. "We will find so many good women if we look for women."
"It's just hard because there aren't a lot of females who are CEOs, so you have to broaden it from that," she added. "Because if we wait to have 50 percent of women as CEOs to have 50 percent of women on boards, we're going to be waiting a long time."