Lettie Pate Whitehead is often credited as the first female board member of a major corporation, stepping in as a director after her husband had passed in 1934. During that time, that was essentially the only path for a female to become a board member of a company – through their relationship with their spouse.
It wasn’t until 1985 that a Fortune 500 company elected its first female director who had no personal relationship with a male executive, according to a study by Stanford University. In fact, in 2009, 56 companies in the S&P 500 and 1,216 companies in the Russell 5000 still did not have a single female board member.
But over time, corporations have made significant progress towards diversity and inclusivity. As of June 28, just one company in the S&P 500 did not have a female board member. And of all S&P 500 company boards, 27 percent of members are female – that is, for the first time in history, more than one in four board seats are held by a woman.
“Typically, you hear that there are less numbers of women CEOs due to the time constraints of also having a family at home, and women traditionally play a larger role at home,” Tucson Metro Chamber CEO Amber Smith said. “Having this many women CEOs have shown that we’ve figured out a way to make it work. These traditional titles and roles are now becoming nontraditional and becoming the new norm. It’s becoming a more inclusive community.”
According to McKinsey Consulting’s Women Matter 2 study, women utilize five of the nine leadership behaviors that improve company performance more than men. These include people development, expectations and rewards, role modeling, inspiration, and participative decision-making.
“It’s good to reflect the rest of the community,” Smith said. “If half of the population is women, leadership should be the same; diversity in thoughts is extremely important. Biologically, women think differently than men, so to be able to tackle issues from all sides is only going to be better for the companies.”
Nevertheless, there is still plenty of room for progress. Presently, just 10 S&P 500 companies have boards that are comprised of 50 percent women or more. In the Russell 5000, 329 companies still do not have a single female board member. STEM industries, for example, still need progress, Smith says.
“I think more women in STEM would be great, and that would be really impactful,” she said. “That’s certainly an industry that needs to be more in STEM — but you need more diversity in general in STEM. I’ve never been in that industry, but I think part of it is educating our youth and letting those girls know that science, engineering, and math are for women as well as men.”
Emily Anne Gullickson, CEO of the Arizona Chamber Foundation, notes that local women are taking leadership roles in community organizations. With women chairing positions at the Foundation, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, and the Arizona Manufacturers Council, Gullickson epitomizes the “new norm” of professional women that Smith mentioned.
“As a Millennial CEO in a male dominated industry, it’s so critical for me to have strong female role models. When I look across our organization and throughout state government, I see powerful women making critical decisions at the state level,” said Gullickson. “I’m so grateful to live and work in a state where there is endless opportunity. As an Arizona transplant, I have not seen the proverbial ‘glass ceiling.’ Instead I have been given the same runway as men in my field, and I have been supported by leaders who focus on cultivating talent no matter their gender. Arizona inspires me and I’m humbled to play a small part in helping develop the next generation of Arizona leaders.”