The good news: Women are gaining seats in local boardrooms. The bad: The numbers are still extremely low.

The nonprofit organization Women in Technology (WIT) recently released its 2013 report on female board directors in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Conducted by American University's Kogod School of Business, the report finds a slight increase in the percentage of board seats held by women in the region, reaching 11 percent in 2013, up from 10 percent in 2012.

While the slight uptick is an improvement, 11 percent is strikingly low when compared with the percent of women in managerial or professional roles (51.5 percent, according to a Catalyst report that cites 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and in the overall labor force (46.9 percent). The WIT report, which examined the boards of the 208 D.C.-region companies that are publicly traded on the Nasdaq or the New York Stock Exchange, found that one-third of these companies do not have a single woman on their board.

How that regional number holds up to national averages depends on the group of companies to which it's compared. According to a report by 2020 Women on Boards, a national campaign to increase the ratio of women on U.S. company boards, 13 percent of Fortune 1000 companies don't have any women on their boards. However, a 2010 report by the research firm Corporate Library (now part of GMI Ratings) found that among companies in the Russell 3000 index, which consists of the 3,000 largest U.S. companies, some 40 percent didn't have a female board member.

Relative size is the primary reason for those differences, says Jill Klein, a professor at American University's Kogod School of Business who oversees the research. Many of the publicly traded companies in the region are still quite small. Just 40 of the 208 organizations in the WIT report are members of the Fortune 1000, and research has shown that larger company boards tend to be more diverse. Smaller firms are less likely to have the infrastructure in place to increase diversity, and more likely to have retained the same boards they had as private companies, Klein says. Additionally, larger companies come under more scrutiny and thus face more pressures to seek out women for their boards. "They're going to see more advocacy groups coming to them, while smaller companies fly a lot more under the radar."

A secondary factor in the gender makeup of local boards may be that the local economy leans toward some male-dominated industries. "It's not a surprise that the technology sector is historically very male dominated and a big part of our community," Klein says. Technology companies, which make up approximately 15 percent of the 208 firms WIT examined, are "clearly one of the groups that bring the average down."

Meanwhile, the report found that just 7 percent of local publicly traded companies have at least three women on their boards. (As of 2010, 8 percent of Russell 3000 companies in the United States had three or more women, according to the Corporate Library's report.) That figure is important because research has shown it's not until women reach "critical mass" on a board that the benefits of diversity really start to take hold.

A seminal study from 2006 found that when boards have a lone female, an environment of tokenism can set in where the boards disregard women's experience and excluded them from socializing and some decision-making. Having two women helps, but "the magic seems to occur when three or more women serve on a board together," wrote the paper's authors. "No longer does any one woman represent the 'woman's point of view,' because the women express different views and often disagree with each other."

In order to help improve the ratio of women on boards in the region, WIT has undertaken a number of initiatives. It created a two-day training session and series of networking events called The Leadership Foundry to train women for board roles, and its first graduate elected to a paying board seat was named this year. It has also launched a letter-writing campaign to local businesses that don't have women on their boards, and it gives out awards to companies that have elected high numbers of female directors.

Still, Phyllis Kolmus, the president of WIT, recognizes that reaching greater gender parity in the boardroom is also a waiting game, one that will take "persistence, time and data." And given the slow turnover on boards, that may mean the primary way to increase the number of female directors is to wait for more people to retire.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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