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N.J. companies have slight edge in number of women on corporate boards

Women comprise 14 percent of N.J. board seats, versus 12 percent nationally

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Denise Morrison, left, with her sister and Frontier Communications CEO Maggie Wilderotter. Both women are on their respective companies' boards, but only 12% of board seats nationally are held by women.
Denise Morrison, left, with her sister and Frontier Communications CEO Maggie Wilderotter. Both women are on their respective companies' boards, but only 12% of board seats nationally are held by women. - (AARON HOUSTON / NJBIZ)

When it comes to the number of women on the boards of public companies in New Jersey, the state comes out ahead of the national average, according to a new survey released Tuesday.

But just slightly.

Women comprise 14 percent of the board seats of the 111 public companies included in the survey. The national average is around 12 percent. That gives the state an edge of just 2 percent, meaning total gender equality when it comes to who fills those powerful seats is still far off.

The survey, "A Seat at the Table: Celebrating Women and Board Leadership," was unveiled at a breakfast event Tuesday morning in East Brunswick. The first of its kind in the state, it was commissioned by Executive Women of New Jersey, in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

At the event, New Jersey's above average performance was roundly hailed as a laudable achievement.

"It's a tangible sign of progress," said Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup Company and the keynote speaker at the event.

But there is still ample room for improvement, she added.

"Women have made significant progress at the entry levels and into middle management," said "As the pyramid narrows and the competition for leadership roles increases, where are the women? And what happens to them?"

In conducting the survey, EWNJ looked at the 111 public companies based in New Jersey that are on the Russell 3000 Index.

Seventeen of those companies had three or more women on their corporate boards, a list that includes Campbell Soup Company, American Water Works Company, Honeywell and Johnson & Johnson.

But overall, the numbers were less impressive. The boards of those 111 companies include 1,007 seats, and just 139 of those are currently occupied by women. In addition, 33 of those 111 companies, or about 30 percent, had no women directors at all.

Beyond the boardroom, just four of those 111 companies had female CEOs.

That lack of women in the top spot is mirrored across all Fortune 500 companies, Morrison noted.

"Today there are only 22 female CEOs running Fortune 500 companies, versus 478 men, and we can celebrate that as progress, but why do one-third of the (New Jersey) companies on the Russell 3000 have no women on their boards at all?" Morrison said. "We have to shift the imbalance. The bottom line is that it's good for the bottom line."

And the financials support that statement. A recent report from Credit Suisse found that for companies with a market cap of more than $10 billion, those with women on their boards outperformed their counterparts with no female board members by 26 percent. The same occurred among the smaller companies Credit Suisse studied over a six-year period.

In addition, a 2012 report from Catalyst found that, when it comes to having women on boards, the more the merrier: Companies with three or more female directors performed better financially than those with just one or two female directors.

Catherine Bromilow, a partner with the Center for Board Governance at PwC, said you could argue that those figures represent more of a correlation than a causation.

"It could be it is the better companies to start with who want to hear from women," said Bromilow, who presented the report's findings at Tuesday's breakfast.

"But there's also the possibility that just having women on boards makes boards better," she added. "I really hope that it's a causation … because on PwC's board of partners, we have four women on the board. So my fingers are crossed."

Bromilow said that at the current pace at which women are filling board seats, the ratios of men to women won't even approach parity for another 75 years.

Part of that is the relative lack of open positions at any given time. Only 3 percent of boards in the S&P 500 have term limits, and when there is a mandatory retirement age, it tends to be about 72 or older.

"Boards just aren't recruiting all that often," Bromilow said. "The IPO market is beginning to pick up, but there haven't been all that many companies going public. Instead there have been mergers or companies going private."

But for the positions that do open up, she advocated making a deliberate attempt to have more diverse candidates for open positions. Part of that means being open to candidates who have held the No. 2 or 3 spot within a company and not always demanding seats be filled by former or current CEOs.

She also advocated that companies look for board-worthy women in their ranks and support them, giving them more profit and loss responsibility and pushing them to gain visibility outside their companies.

Morrison agreed that companies bear part of the responsibility. But she also urged women to propel themselves forward, in whatever way they can.

"The point is, if you believe in your leadership credibility and your ability to sit on a board, go for it," she said. "Women shouldn't just wait for doors to open. We've got to open them for ourselves."

Read the survey in its entirety below.

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