Co-CEO and President of Ariel Investments, Chairman of the Board of the trustees of Ariel Investment Trust, Vice Chair of the board at Starbucks Corporation and a Director of JPMorgan Chase
Chairman of the Board and CEO of Bank of America and Chair of the World Economic Forum International Business Council
Executive Director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the first U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues
Cardiologist and President of Wellesley College
Former Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, New York Times Bestselling Author, and board member of Lyft and Sweetgreen
President, U.S. and Canada divisions, at Marsh
Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Zoom
Co-chair of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and founder of Pivotal Ventures
Over the last year, the world has been impacted significantly by the COVID-19 pandemic, social injustice and how women of color are disproportionately affected. A spotlight on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues and racial inequality has rightfully reinforced the work still required for diversity and inclusion to exist in the workplace and on corporate boardrooms. Recently, 50/50 Women on Boards held its annual Global Conversation on Board Diversity. The event featured 27 live-streamed conversations taking place over three weeks across the U.S. and four other countries. Expert panels from around the globe addressed the status of diversity on corporate boards and discussed how when boards are diverse, business culture, innovation and performance improve significantly. This segment features highlights from the event’s advocacy panel.
Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire: I want to ask each of you for your thoughts about advancing women to corporate boards, why you see this as a business issue, and how companies and institutions like yours influence others to see the business advantages of having gender-balanced and diverse boards of directors. For the group, what impact have you had on business and the community by serving on corporate boards?
Mellody Hobson: When I think about what impact I’ve had on business and the community by serving on boards, I really think, first and foremost, about the shareholders. As a board member, my job is to be a fiduciary for the shareholders. That is always front and center in my mind of doing everything I can to make the company better. I remember when Howard Schultz was leaving the Starbucks board, he said to me: “Mellody, whenever I’ve been in the boardroom, I’ve had two additional empty chairs always in the room: one of a shareholder and one of a partner from Starbucks. The idea being I want to make sure everything we discuss, we’re both proud of and we have them in mind.”
That’s first and foremost for me—the people who work inside of the company and the shareholders that are invested in the company. When I think of the impact I’ve had in the boardroom, and I hopefully say this with humility, I’ve been able to make a difference for those two groups. Also, hopefully, I’ve been able to help the company as it relates to its profile and/or the perceptions of the company in the broader community and in the marketplace—especially when it relates to issues of diversity and inclusion.
Valerie Jarrett: My goal in joining a board is to add value both in terms of the substance of my background, experience, and judgment, but also perspective. I think that in the global marketplace, it’s important that the boardrooms be populated with people who represent that marketplace. Being a Black woman, I think having life experiences that are different than other members of the board adds value as we try to compete.
Brian Moynihan: I think a board member’s core role is governance and advice and perspective. In serving on boards of large institutions, trade groups, small companies, you’re always trying to help. Basically, that phrase of “nose in, fingers out.” Management runs the company, the boards have to govern some broad policies, some broad strategy and help management by asking the tough questions.
“In the global marketplace, it’s important that the boardrooms be populated with people who represent that marketplace.”
– Valerie Jarrett, board member of Lyft and Sweetgreen
Berkhemer-Credaire: Paula, specifically at Wellesley, you have advanced women’s higher education by integrating the ideals of inclusive excellence into every aspect of academic and residential life. What does inclusive excellence mean?
Paula A. Johnson: Really, in order to achieve true excellence, one must embrace diversity, equity and inclusion. Inclusive excellence is the idea that, for us, every student has the opportunity to feel a strong sense of belonging and to flourish. We’ve been so fortunate and really focused on bringing students from across the country from different races, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, as well as from around the world. However, when they get here and they’re living together, we have to understand, as an organization, how we have to evolve and change to truly embrace that diversity, to create that sense of belonging and to create that environment in which they can flourish.
Berkhemer-Credaire: What obstacles and opportunities for women in the workforce, from middle management to leadership roles, hinder or help their succession to the boardroom?
Ambassador Melanne Verveer: I think one of the key obstacles is ensuring that women who are performing well become interested in and put themselves forward to continue to rise in the ranks of the company. It is critically important for women to be eligible candidates for promotion in their companies and to see that their performance really symbolizes their ability to rise up the ranks.
I think that we need to see more women in the operational side of companies—not just in human resources where women have obviously made a strong contribution in management—but in the more operational parts of the businesses so they can be prime candidates for boards.
Johnson: In order to really get more women into the boardroom, we need to get more women into the C-Suite. We need to get more women in positions of leadership. It is from there that those women will be asked to be on the board to join as directors. Again, this is not just on the shoulders of women. We need our male allies to work with us.
Eric Yuan: At Zoom, we promote women leadership roles from a board level to the C-level executives, all the way down to the engineers. Take the Zoom board for example; we hired Kim Hammonds to join our board several years ago, and she played a very big role.
We recently hired a new board member, Janet Napolitano, to join our board. Also, look at our C-level executives: our CFO, COO, CMO, chief people officer, chief compliance and ethics officer. All those women leaders have really helped Zoom become a better company. We’re also going to hire a lot of women engineers. I think from all levels the diversity and inclusive culture really helped Zoom become a better business.
Jarrett: Boardroom decisions are made based on relationships. Boards want to have people who they know they can trust. They have a very important fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders. I think what we’re seeing now is a reckoning, but the responsibility has to go beyond the shareholders—to the workforce, to the suppliers, to the community.
I think it’s important that we have women in those positions on the board who can add perspective and who can encourage their businesses to recognize that diversity is a strength, and inclusion is a part of the culture. If we want to have people move up the corporate ladder and ultimately into the boardroom, then we have to remove the barriers that are a hindrance to that progress. Having a voice in the boardroom that perhaps has experienced some of those barriers, I think is important. Making sure that the entire enterprise benefits from those experiences and can do better and can maximize the opportunity for women to progress all the way into the boardroom, and certainly into the highest ranks of businesses around the country.
Melinda French Gates: One of the reasons we don’t see more women on boards is that there’s this old-school perception that in order to be an effective board member, you need the letters “CEO” by your name. It’s time for that myth to just go the way of the dinosaur. Because first of all, it’s just not true. Second of all, it’s sexist.
In 2018, there were more Fortune 500 CEOs named James than there were women on that list. If you think that’s because men named James have more to offer than all women combined, then you’re probably at the wrong conference.
It’s also time to stop blaming the lack of diversity in the boardroom on the so-called “pipeline.” Because, to be frank, the traditional pipeline was built by white men for white men. To change the phase of the boardroom, we need to change the way we look for board members. That means looking beyond CEOs to other C-Suite executive roles. For example, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the critical skill sets held by general counsel, CHROs and other executive roles where women happened to be more strongly represented. Maybe one of those women is exactly the person your board needs.
“In 2018, there were more Fortune 500 CEOs named James than there were women on that list. If you think that’s because men named James have more to offer than all women combined, then you’re probably at the wrong conference.”
– Melinda French Gates, Co-chair of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Berkhemer-Credaire: What might both men and women business leaders do to accelerate diversity in the boardroom?
Gates: The single most important thing business leaders can do to accelerate diversity in the boardroom is to insist on fielding a diverse slate of candidates. Including one token woman or one woman of color on the slate doesn’t count. Research says that when companies include only one woman in the mix, she has virtually no chance of being selected. Make sure you have multiple women and multiple people of color on your candidate slate.
Yuan: Connections can certainly help to have inclusive culture. At Zoom, for example, we are based in Silicon Valley. It used to be when we’re looking for women leaders or engineers, we would have to think how they must be based here in Silicon Valley. Now, given that we have a technology like Zoom, we can hire those talents no matter where they live.
Jarrett: Both men and women business leaders have to make diversity in the boardroom a priority. What gets measured in business gets done. What gets rewarded in business gets done. It has to be very intentional. It’s not going to happen organically because we’ve seen that, historically, without pressure, the status quo stays the same, and we can’t just have the same circle of people calling on their relationships.
Ambassador Verveer: Both men and women can play a very pivotal role. This should not just be a test for women. We need those strong male champions, to not only encourage their companies to adjust, adapt and promote, but also to encourage their colleagues in other companies. We know that one woman, that token appointment, that’s not sufficient. There’s plenty of documentation that shows that even three becomes a critical mass that really makes a difference. We need women as well to be mentors, sponsors and the strongest advocates.
Moynihan: You just have to say you’re going to do it. As chair of the board and with our leading independent director, Jack Bovender, and before that, Chad Holliday and Walter Massey, we basically made a statement that Bank of America was going to increase diverse representation on its board. We basically said to the recruiters to help us build our board membership pipelines and candidates. We needed to have certain skill sets, women technologists and things like that.
Hobson: When I think about what men and women can do to accelerate diversity in the boardroom, it’s very simple: count. Anything that matters is worth counting. Anything that matters counts, so start counting. One of my favorite lines is, “Math has no opinion.” When you have the data, it speaks for itself. What I suggest is counting at every level of the organization. Looking at your board by ethnicity and counting, then the C-Suite and all the executive ranks, and then all the way down the organization.
Johnson: One of the most important things that we can do as directors, and also as leaders, is bring more women and people of color into leadership roles. Really ensure that that pipeline is not leaking. Networking is important, but it really takes coaching, it takes mentorship and it takes sponsorship. I think we’ve got to take those on very seriously in order to really change the makeup of leadership, and this is where we’re going to get our next generation of directors from. I think it’s really a critical step.
Martin South: You’ve got to have a conversation about it. It has to be on your mind at every level. You have to look at it from the bottom of organizations, where it’s much easier for people to control what people you end up employing. If you’re doing horizontal hiring, you have to be very mindful of it. As you look at promotions, particularly at senior levels, it almost has to be a cultural thing in any organization now. You cannot even conceive or put forth a slate of candidates that isn’t diverse on every level.
“One of the most important things that we can do as directors, and also as leaders, is bring more women and people of color into leadership roles. Really ensure that that pipeline is not leaking.”
– Paula A. Johnson, Cardiologist and President of Wellesley College
Berkhemer-Credaire: Ambassador Verveer and Valerie, you have such a worldview having been in a previous administration, and have been very active in reaching out to the rest of the world. Do you think that countries influence one another on this issue, and are there discussions at the highest levels about this issue?
Ambassador Verveer: What we’re seeing is other countries are really moving in this direction as well. Companies see what one another are doing. Many companies today are multinational, they’re off operating the world over. There is a real sense that work has to be done differently. Leadership needs to be manifested differently. In the area of boards of directors, corporate boards and publicly held companies, this is a trend line that is no longer wishful thinking, but increasingly a hard reality.
Jarrett: I think, absolutely, peer pressure at any level works. It happens between countries as well. When President Obama was in office, I co-chaired, together with the secretaries of state, a council that encouraged those who came to the UN to make commitments about what they were doing to improve the representation of women, both in government and in business.
We shared best practices on an annual basis at the UN General Assembly. By sharing those best practices, it gave us a chance to compete against one another and say, “Well, who has the best ideas? What can we do as government leaders and as those who are leaders in business to make this a priority?”
I do believe that, on a global stage, there is a recognition that you cannot compete without representation of the people who are purchasing the lion’s share of the goods and many of the services. We will make better decisions, both as public policymakers and as business leaders, when we recognize that we enforce that conduct and put pressure on one another wherever we can to excel.
Yes, countries compete with one another, businesses compete with one another, and that’s as it should be. I think there has been a paradigm shift from the sense that representation of women in the workplace at all levels is a “nice-to-do.” It is now recognized as a business imperative. I think global leaders, both in the public and the private sector, are beginning to understand that now and are devoting resources, efforts and energy to achieve those important goals of diversity and inclusion.
Berkhemer-Credaire: In our 10th year, 50/50 Women on Boards reported that women hold 22.6% of the corporate board seats among the Russell 3000. What do you believe we can achieve in the next 10 years?
Hobson: There is no question to me as we look to the next decade, we will have more women in the boardroom. The train has left the station. Corporate America sees very clearly that a lack of gender representation on a board is not going to be acceptable. Not only will it not be acceptable to investors, it won’t be acceptable to the people who work inside of the company. I actually don’t think it will be acceptable to customers.
In the viral world that we live in, no one wants that backlash. I think that we will see a decade from now a lot more women on boards. I think it will be increasingly rare to have a board in Corporate America that does not have a woman representative.
Jarrett: I think we’re going to see an increase in numbers and an increase in types of industries and life experiences that women bring to the table. We have already demonstrated that we can compete on an uneven playing field, and we’re going to do our part to level that playing field. I am confident that both in the United States and around the world we will see an increasing number of women serving in the boardroom, and their perspectives will enable those businesses to do better. They’ll be more productive, more profitable. That evidence is already beginning to take shape.
Johnson: I think that we’re going to see women driving change and really looking to our male allies to move that change forward. I think we are already seeing that there is a real appetite in Corporate America today, really driven by the market to see companies do good, whether it be around social justice or the environment. It’s good business, and I think we’re going to see that trend continue.
I do think that women are going to play a very significant role in those discussions, and this whole idea of diversity, the intersectionality—I think women are going to lead the way. Thinking about the intersection of gender and race and ethnicity and other forms of diversity, women are going to be on the cutting edge of driving that change. I think as that becomes recognized, the value of women directors will only increase.
Jarrett: I won’t be satisfied until we have half of our population represented on boards, and I don’t think you should be satisfied either. We have to make this a priority. Those of us who have a seat at the table have to push for increased diversity, and we have to explain why this gives our businesses a competitive advantage. We can’t just sit around and expect it to happen on its own. It won’t. History has proven that point, but I do believe that it will improve our competitiveness when we achieve that goal.
There’s no reason to stop at 50%. We’ve been living with men being the dominant representation on boards for a very long time. I actually would encourage our businesses to look at having far more than 50% women. I am sure that they will do better, by their customers, their workers and be more competitive with our voices at the table.
Gates: The board agenda over the next decade is going to be shaped by what we’re living through right now. A global pandemic that has disrupted business as usual, a recession that is impacting women disproportionately and a long overdue reckoning with the racial injustice that has Corporate America thinking seriously about its roles in advancing equity.
These are big challenges. To meet them, boards will need a diverse set of perspectives at the table. That makes the work you’re doing here even more important. Progress isn’t inevitable. It’s not irreversible either. Every day, we see more data about how the pandemic and its impacts are erasing gains for women in the workplace, especially at the highest levels. That’s why anyone who’s interested in seeing a more diverse boardroom has a responsibility to protect against backsliding on gender equality at all levels of the workplace. I’m thinking about this every single day. I know many of you are, too. If gender equality isn’t on your daily agenda yet, I hope this is a call to action.
Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire is CEO of 50/50 Women on Boards™, the global education and advocacy campaign committed to accelerating gender balance and diversity on corporate boards. She is the author of two books on the topic, The Board Game: How Smart Women Become Corporate Directors and Winning the Board Game: How Women Directors Make the Difference. Both books offer real-world guidelines and profiles of current women corporate directors for helping women seek board positions as their ultimate career goal.
As a statewide past president of the National Association of Women Business Owners-California (NAWBO-CA), Ms. Berkhemer-Credaire led NAWBO-CA’s successful campaign to secure passage of SB826, effective January 2019, the first and only law in the U.S. requiring every public company in California to have at least three women board members before year-end 2021. She previously volunteered on the boards of the Southern California Leadership Network and UCLA Medical Center, and the consumer advisory board for SoCal Edison.
For 27 years, Ms. Berkhemer-Credaire has been the CEO and co-founder of Berkhemer Clayton, Inc., a retained executive search firm based in Los Angeles that specializes in senior-level searches at corporations, universities and nonprofit organizations. Her firm is distinguished for its commitment to advancing gender and ethnic diversity on corporate boards and in senior management positions throughout the country, with 44% of placed management candidates women and 36% men and women of color.
Before founding Berkhemer Clayton with Fred Clayton, Ms. Berkhemer-Credaire built and sold one of the largest independent public relations firms in Southern California. Ms. Berkhemer-Credaire is a UCLA graduate.