The Washington Post

Women are still outnumbered in the boardroom at Washington area companies

When Gannett’s board of directors gathers for a meeting, the faces around the table look a bit different than those in other corporate boardrooms across the region.

Three of the media giant’s 11 board members are women, and according to a recent study, that means it has more women directors than 94 percent of public companies headquartered in the Washington area.

Diversity is “incredibly important in a board of directors, because you want to have folks that have different life experiences, that bring those experiences to the table,” said Gracia Martore, the McLean-based company’s president and chief executive.

The study, conducted by American University’s Kogod School of Business on behalf of nonprofit group Women In Technology, found that 37 percent of local companies have no women on their boards, and another 37 percent have just one.

Women have long been underrepresented in corporate boardrooms, but some local companies such as Gannett have been making a push to change that. More diverse perspectives, they say, have made their corporate leadership stronger.

Fairfax-based ICF International has two women directors, which is more than 74 percent of local companies. Chairman and chief executive Sudhakar Kesavan said the professional services company is striving for more diversity.

“We are not quite satisfied with what we have at the moment,” Kesavan said.

Kesavan said that having women directors has been advantageous on a variety of fronts. His company’s workforce is 52 percent women, and he said that having women in leadership roles sends them an important message.

“From a meritocracy perspective, it’s important for us to do that,” he said.

He also said a diverse board has helped his company tap into a wider range of professional networks and has helped them better connect with their clients.

“We just want to reflect our client set and our employee basis and the world at large, and a diverse board helps us do that,” he said.

Still ‘old-boy network’

Across the Washington region, the study found that women continue to be outnumbered in corporate director roles. Researchers looked at the boards of 224 publicly-traded companies headquartered in the District, Maryland and Virginia. They found that women hold just 10.3 percent of the 2,115 board seats.

That does not compare favorably to a nationwide 2011 study by nonprofit group Catalyst which found that women held 16.1 percent of board positions at Fortune 500 companies.

Still, the growth rate for women in board roles is about 1 percent both locally and nationally.

“The starting point was what was different, but in the initiative to grow, we’re about the same as the nation,” said Meredith Kirchheimer, one of the researchers who worked on the study.

Experts and researchers say that Washington area women are having trouble landing positions on corporate boards for the same reasons as their counterparts across the country.

“People get on boards because they know people. It is a network. And it has traditionally been an old-boy network,” said Piper Conrad, communications chairwoman at Women In Technology.

Also, director positions don’t tend to turn over frequently, so there are limited opportunities to break into these roles.

Despite those head winds, some recruiters say that clients are increasingly focused on getting a diverse pool of candidates for board positions.

“It does seem to us that the issue has been re-energized,” said Julie Daum, head of the North American Board & CEO Practice at consulting firm Spencer Stuart.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economic news.
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