Tuesday, December 26, 2006

We still have "women's boards"?

The other week I opened up a copy of Chicago's leading business newspaper and suddenly found myself warped back to 1975. At least that was the sensation caused by reading about major non-profit institutions which still maintain "women's boards" or a "women's association."

That's just, at this point in time, odd. Of course the Joffreys and Adler Planetariums and Art Institutes are in some ways kind of a league of their own -- but every institution listed in that article has long since had plenty of wealthy and/or influential women on their actual boards, including officers, including chairs. (In my Chicago non-profit career I've met several of them.) For example the Joffrey Ballet when it started a women's board only five years ago was being chaired by Pamela Strobel, then one of the top executives at Exelon. (She's since retired.) I know firsthand of similar examples in New York and Los Angeles and other cities.

A quick search does not turn up any recent empirical research about the gender composition of non-profit boards. This study from 15 years ago found that the boards of "cultural institutions" in six U.S. cities were around one-third female as of 1991, and rising. That sounds about right for that time at the big old symphonies and museums they were surveying. From my working experience in the other 98% of the sector I bet a fully-representative survey as of 2006 would put the female percentage on all non-profit boards well above 50%, and still rising.

As I think on it and read that article again there may be a generational thing at work here. The quotes from female business execs in their 40s who declined invitations to join a "women's board" ring true. (And notice that most of the women's-board members quoted or pictured are older than that.) Thinking of all the successful women I know who have served on various non-profit boards, few of whom are eligible for Social Security, I'm pretty sure that their private reactions to the idea of a women's board would not be so carefully phrased!


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