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Breaking boards
You don't need to be a martial artist to crack the boardroom, but for women this goal remains elusive. Here's how Kellogg is helping open more doors to governance

By Shannon Dunlap

A group of executives enters the wood-paneled room. The individuals take seats around a long, impressive table. As directors of a company, they are talented, committed and ready to guide the firm. And they are all white men.

This is what a boardroom looked like 50 years ago; unfortunately, too often today's reality still mirrors that bygone time.
  Breaking boards image

The enduring problem of gender disparity in business extends beyond mere decorum, or even more lofty ideals of equality. It hurts the bottom line. In contrast, diversity can help make boards more efficient and effective. "Broadening the pool of potential director talent makes good business sense," says Victoria Husted Medvec, the Adeline Barry Davee Professor of Management and Organizations and executive director of the Kellogg School's Center for Executive Women (CEW). Yet even at well-intentioned companies, the progress toward more diverse boards is glacial. According to the most recent report from Catalyst, women occupy just 13.6 percent of Fortune 500 board seats.

At Kellogg, corporate governance has long been a focus. For 14 years, the school's annual Corporate Governance Conference has convened directors from a range of industries to discuss challenges and pertinent topics. Recently, Kellogg has also turned its attention to accelerating board diversification by offering two executive education courses that address this issue: the Women's Director Development Program and the Minority Director Development Program.

The women in the Women's Director Development Program are well aware of the problem confronting them and know that gaining entry to the boardroom is no easy task. So, in preparation, they leverage the CEW's resources to hone skills such as effective board decision-making and analysis to detect potential errors in financial statements. In addition to teaching sound director techniques, the program also addresses the challenges of being a female director. Participants discuss how to ensure that they are more than token members by evaluating board opportunities and by amplifying their voices in the boardroom. "The thought of being a new board member and, in many cases, the only woman on the board, can be a little daunting," says Elizabeth Hartigan Connelly '91, a managing director at J.P. Morgan Chase and a recent CEW participant. "The skills we learned during the program will allow us to walk into a boardroom with confidence."

The Center also maintains a database of potential board candidates, and all participants in the Women's Director Development Program are invited to submit their r�sum�s for inclusion. Kellogg makes this information freely available to nominating committees and search firms seeking new board members. Eileen Kamerick, CFO of Heidrick & Struggles, was a participant in one of the program's first sessions in 2002 and now sits on the boards of two companies: The ServiceMaster Co. and Westell Technologies. "Finding the right kind of board for your first director experience can be a challenge," says Kamerick, who now frequently returns to Kellogg to speak in the program. "The database surfaces fresh talent who may have been overlooked."

Like Kamerick, program alumnae who now serve on boards often return to contribute to Kellogg panels. "Having program alumnae share their stories and insights as panelists is valuable because these women have recently moved into the boardroom and can talk about their experiences as new board members," says Medvec. The program's faculty also includes very experienced directors, experts on D&O insurance and Sarbanes-Oxley, and partners from leading firms who conduct director searches.

Such efforts are making a difference.

Walter Scott, professor of management and Senior Austin Fellow at Kellogg, helped found the Center for Executive Women. He sees more and more alumnae of the program at the Corporate Governance Conference where he serves on the steering committee. "Every year, there are more exceptionally qualified women directors invited to this international conference," Scott says. "Gifted women directors contribute new perspectives and insights which make the discussions richer and more stimulating. All the attendees benefit."

Lloyd Shefsky, clinical associate professor of entrepreneurship and family enterprise, and another CEW co-founder, is pleased with the Center's efforts and believes them important for ameliorating the landscape of corporate management.

"Though some believe the glass ceiling has been shattered, women continue to be passed over, due to lack of experience in the very positions to which they aspire," says Shefsky. "The only way to break the vicious cycle is with education and training, which the Kellogg Center for Executive Women provides. The Center is already making a difference.

Shefsky adds that history may note that Kellogg helped break the "logjam" and was "indirectly responsible for the proportionate and appropriate selection" of women as corporate executives and directors.

"Then, the unique value that women can bring to boards and executive suites will prove valuable to all our society," he says.

Kellogg looks forward to bringing both a new look and fresh talent to the boardroom. "It's exciting to see that we're having a real impact on boards," says Medvec, "Kellogg is helping transform the face of corporate America."

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University