When Denise Morrison set her sights on adding a corporate board appointment to her resume, it was the 1990s and she was working for Kraft, responsible for a billion-dollar business.
But she wasn't CEO, and that meant she wasn't cut out for the job.
"I was told … that I was not qualified because most boards preferred sitting CEOs," Morrison said. "And I told the recruiter that since there were only four female CEOs at that time, they were going to be busy sitting on a lot of boards.
"And the recruiters jaw dropped — never had even thought of that," she said.
That was then. Now, Morrison is CEO of Campbell Soup Company, one of the most iconic brands in the country. And with five female members, her company's board of directors is leading the state when it comes to gender diversity.
Campbell's is not alone. Sixteen of the largest companies in New Jersey have at least three female board members, according to a report released last week from Executive Women of New Jersey.
The report, "A Seat at the Table: Celebrating Women and Board Leadership," analyzed how the state's top 111 public companies shape up when it comes to the number of women sitting on their boards.
The issue is a controversial one. Boards wield quite a bit of power in the corporate world, and they have long been dominated by men.
For the most part, they still are. The new survey, conducted in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers, found that of the 1,007 board seats available within those 111 companies, just 139 are occupied by women.
That's better than the national average — by about 2 percent.
Of those companies that do have female board members, 16 have taken it one step further, with at least three on their rosters.
Three seems to be a magic number when it comes to women on boards. The survey cites a 2012 report from Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on women in business, which found that companies with three or more female directors performed better financially than those with just one or two. Those companies also did better when it came to return on equity, return on sales and return on invested capital.
In a world populated by increasingly diverse consumers, diverse boards can also help companies respond to changing customer needs.
That has been Morrison's experience at Campbell's. She joined the company as CEO in August of 2011. At the time, the company had been slow to respond to the changing consumer, she said.
"Today, consumers are at the forefront of everything we do," she said.
That includes ensuring the company is as diverse as the people it serves.
"Our employees must speak to and reflect this diversity," she said. "That's why we committed ourselves to building a culture of diversity and inclusion."
That sentiment was echoed across several companies on the list of those with the most gender-diverse boards.
"You get a more diverse viewpoint the greater that you have that makeup, not only in terms of gender and race but also experience, industry and subject-matter expertise," said Ed Graham, chairman and CEO of South Jersey Industries. "That whole portfolio of what a person brings to the table really causes a company to consider different ways of doing or thinking about things."
So for every board appointment, the Folsom-based energy company makes sure to include female and minority candidates. Right now, three of the 10 members on the board of South Jersey Industries are women, and that was a conscious effort because the company has seen the value of board diversity firsthand, Graham said.
"We're way more innovative in terms of some of the things we're doing, and that gets encouraged by the makeup of the board," he said. "We have great expertise in challenging not only the growth potential but also how to evaluate risk."
At American Water Works Company, based in Voorhees, three of the company's nine board members are female. Kellye Walker, the company's chief administrative officer and general counsel, said having women in the boardroom changes the conversations that go on within those hallowed walls.
"The tone of the boardroom, the conversations in the boardroom, the collective company mind is more open when there are more women in the boardroom," Walker said.
It's also nice just to have more than one woman in the room, Walker said, especially when she sits in on meetings.
"It's not that they're easier on me than anyone else. I mean, they do their job," Walker clarified. "(But) there is a sense of pride, a sense of accomplishment for all of us to know that we are value contributors and not just an exception."
So given the benefits, why are women still largely missing from the boardroom?
Part of the problem is the limited number of women in CEO positions. The report found that just four of those 111 N.J. companies have female CEOs, and that position is a popular prerequisite for board seats, said Catherine Bromilow, a partner with the Center for Board Governance at PwC.
Add to that the fact that board seats don't open up all that often, she added. Just 3 percent of boards on the S&P 500 have term limits, and companies that enforce mandatory retirement ages tend to set them around 72 or older, she said.
Plus, there aren't too many new boards being created, she said.
"The IPO market is beginning to pick up, but there haven't been all that many companies going public," Bromilow said.
If the current trends continue, it would take another 75 years for every board to have three or more female members, she said.
To make sure it doesn't take near that long, the report encourages companies to change their board requirements to include women who have held other high-ranking executive positions, not just that of CEO.
And it also urges companies to identify talented women within their ranks and groom them for positions of power.
Cynthia Sullivan, president and CEO of Immunomedics, another company on the list, agreed.
"I think there needs to be really active programs that get these women out and onto boards with the confidence of having something to add," she said. "That's just going to breed more successes."
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