For Lee, the chief executive of BET Networks and a veteran director, it was a sign of the closed doors that sometimes face women seeking to join boards, which do the important work of overseeing a company and representing its shareholders.
“It’s been frustrating at times,” said Lee, who is also a board member at Bethesda-based Marriott International and District-based WGL Holdings. “It can feel like an old boys’ network.”
There is a push from companies and outside groups alike to improve the diversity, and particularly the presence of women, on boards, but achieving that remains a challenge.
Catalyst, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the role of women in business, found women held just shy of 17 percent of board seats of U.S. Fortune 500 companies in 2012, well below the percentages of other countries. Norway, which requires that women make up 40 percent of boards, leads at nearly 41 percent.
However, the percentage of women board members at the Washington area’s largest companies is even lower. Based on a Capital Business analysis of the largest public companies in the region, 85 of 661 board members — or 12.9 percent — are women.
None of the large local public companies has a majority of women on its board. Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin stands out for having four women directors on its board of 12. There remain many local boards with no women; Silver Spring-based Discovery and Arlington-based CACI International are among the largest area companies without women directors.
There is considerable debate over why improving the statistics remains a struggle. Boris Groysberg, a Harvard Business School professor, said that men and women tend to disagree over the reason for the gap. When women are asked why there are so few women on boards, they typically say that existing board members choose people from their networks — who typically look like them. Men, on the other hand, report that there aren’t qualified women in the pipeline.
Groysberg said he finds that claim disingenuous. “We cannot find a couple of hundred qualified women to sit on boards?” he said. “I think it’s outrageous.”
The perks of increased diversity on a board can be very real for companies. At Revlon, Lee said, the company has increased its women directors to five, better representing its customers and making the board more effective.
Susan Ness, a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission and a member of McLean-based Gannett’s board, has spent years studying the absence of women directors.
“Chances are, the guys on the board are not going to be asking the same questions as women, and indeed you want to have a diversity of voices,” she said.
There are obvious benefits, too, for the directors. Serving on a board is a mark of distinction and often offers a boost to an executive’s career. It also pays very well. According to 2020 Women on Boards, a campaign to increase women’s board membership to about 20 percent by 2020, directors are often paid more than $100,000 annually and receive stock options that can be very valuable.