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Gender parity

Moving the needle on corporate boards: More women lawyers needed

Jan Anne Dubin, CEO and principal of Jan Anne Dubin Consulting and a globally recognized speaker on women in leadership in the legal profession, spoke with Roberta (“Bobbi”) Liebenberg, senior partner at Fine, Kaplan and Black, and chair of DirectWomen, about what needs to be done to increase women’s presence on corporate boards and how to promote a culture of growth and support for women leaders at companies and law firms. DirectWomen is the only national nonprofit dedicated to increasing women lawyers on corporate boards. Twenty-three percent of DirectWomen’s Board Institute alumnae serve on at least one corporate board.

Jan Anne Dubin: Bobbi, can you please tell us about your role as chair of DirectWomen?

Roberta Liebenberg: I serve as chair of DirectWomen’s 15-person advisory board, where I am involved in programming, developing a growing network of sponsors and supporters, speaking and writing about our work to increase our profile and raise awareness about the need for greater gender diversity on boards, interfacing with other organizations that promote gender diversity on boards and communicating with law firms and companies about our mission.

I also communicate regularly with our many Board Institute alumnae, sponsors, honorees and volunteers. We have an incredible network, and it serves as a valuable resource to companies who are seeking qualified women lawyers as board candidates.

Dubin: What inspires you about the organization and can you talk specifically about what’s been accomplished since its founding?

Liebenberg: I have been inspired by the passion and the commitment of everyone involved in DirectWomen, as we work to achieve our goal of diversifying the boardroom. We have almost 150 talented alumnae who have attended our Board Institute. Twenty-three percent of our alumnae are now serving on boards of large public companies, which is an amazing accomplishment. I am also very proud of the fact that the regional programming we have held around the country provides invaluable input to women about how to position themselves for selection to a corporate board.

Dubin: McKinsey, Deloitte and other organizations recently put together formative diversity studies. What specifically is the value and benefit in having a diverse composition of men and women on corporate boards?

Liebenberg: The research by Catalyst, McKinsey and Credit Suisse demonstrates the value of gender-diverse boards. Companies with three or more women on their boards financially outperform, on average, those with the fewest women board members. It’s clear that gender-diverse boards produce better results for shareholders. Companies not only receive financial benefits from having women on boards, but there is also a domino effect whereby having more women on corporate boards leads to more women in the C-suite and senior management roles. It is a win-win for women and the bottom line.

Dubin: Given the positive benefits of a diverse board composition, why do women remain underrepresented on corporate boards?

Liebenberg: PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)’s 2016 Annual Corporate Directors Survey included responses from 884 public company directors. Eighty-nine percent of female directors stated that board diversity enhanced a company’s performance, which was in stark contrast to only 24 percent of male directors expressing that view. Ninety-two percent of female directors believed that board diversity improves effectiveness, compared to only 38 percent of male directors. There is a definite gender perception gap concerning the importance of diversity. However, I feel optimistic about women’s expanding role in leadership and on boards, as exemplified by the work being done in Europe and the actions taken by institutional and activist investors to promote diversity on boards.

I believe you are going to see increased diversity on corporate boards because it makes good business sense and there are statistics to back it up. Sixty percent of all personal wealth is controlled by women; they make 80 percent of all healthcare and consumer decisions; and they account for 50 percent of stock ownership. Companies that don’t recognize that having diverse boards is important will be the ones that will be left at a competitive disadvantage.

Dubin: Given Forum’s global focus, what is your reaction to the recent Credit Suisse study on Europe which found such countries as Norway, France and Sweden – to name a few – had some of the highest percentages of women on corporate boards? Why is that and what lessons can we learn from these examples?

Liebenberg: This ongoing international effort to increase diversity on boards is having a significant ripple effect in the US. It’s not only Norway, but, for example, India and Israel recently mandated that all their listed companies must have at least one woman on their boards. Norway has been the world leader, and women now comprise over 40% of directors on their corporate boards.

France, Germany, Finland, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain – these countries have all seen the benefits of not only having more women on their boards, but also how it impacts women in leadership roles. You don’t need to mandate quotas to increase board diversity. When the UK’s Davies Report came out in 2011, it set an aspirational goal of 25 percent women directors. At that time, women comprised just 12.5 percent of directors on FTSE 100 companies. By 2015, that percentage had more than doubled to 26.1 percent.

Dubin: Data from a March 2016 S&P Global Market Intelligence study reported that 24 Fortune 500 companies do not have women on their boards. Are you seeing women in leadership roles disengaging from companies that do not support diversity of their boards?

Liebenberg: When Facebook® first announced that it was going public but still had no women on its board, social media responded quickly and that led Facebook to add Sheryl Sandberg to its board shortly after its IPO. Likewise, Twitter® added its first woman director after its IPO and after receiving criticism on social media.

Pinterest, a company focused on women, recognized the business case for adding women to its previously all-male board. In fact, Pinterest began using the Rooney Rule to fill full-time leadership roles and directorships in July 2015. The Rooney Rule was taken from the NFL and mandates that whenever there is an open coaching position, management must interview a minority candidate. There’s been some focus on companies applying the Rooney Rule to create more diversity in the boardroom.

The other thing you have seen is the increase of impact investment funds, which are being created to effectuate social change. In 2016, State Street Global Advisors added an exchange traded fund with the ticker symbol “SHE” to invest in companies with the highest level of gender diversity in their sectors.

Dubin: Having this conversation on the heels of the recent US election, how have things changed for women and is there a different resolve now for women wanting to make an impact?

Liebenberg: The momentum for diversity is strong – we see what is at stake, and we recognize that to reach full equality we must continue to challenge the status quo and act as change agents. We must heed the admonition of Dr. Martin Luther King to act with a fierce sense of urgency. These efforts are more important than ever before, so we can create an environment where younger generations of women will have no limits on what they can accomplish, no obstacles to their successes and no more glass ceilings left to shatter.

Dubin: What additional steps must be taken to continue to make progress, so more women lawyers can be placed on corporate boards?

Liebenberg: We need to formulate best practices and strategies to continue to increase female leadership. Utilization of the Rooney Rule to require a diverse slate of candidates is a good first step. I would go further and advocate that more than one woman be considered because the research shows that if there is just one woman candidate, the chances of a woman being chosen are less than if there are multiple women candidates. Interestingly, some companies now utilize all-women slates in an effort to increase the ranks of women on their boards. We also need committed men to step up as sponsors and advocates for women. Women are over-mentored and under-sponsored, but it’s the sponsorship that pushes women to the next level which is so critical to their success. Understanding this and developing a commitment to diversity by setting realistic goals and expectations will help to move the needle.

Meet the interviewees

Roberta "Bobbi" Liebenberg - Partner Fine, Kaplan and Black and Chair of DirectWomenRoberta (“Bobbi”) Liebenberg is a senior partner at Fine, Kaplan and Black in Philadelphia, where she focuses her practice on class actions, antitrust and complex commercial litigation. She has played a leadership role in many organizations and initiatives relating to gender equality in the legal profession, the boardroom and society at large. In recognition of her professional accomplishments and long-standing efforts to help women advance and succeed, Liebenberg has received numerous awards and honors. She is a cofounder and chair of DirectWomen.
Jan Anne DubinJan Anne Dubin, MBA is an industry pioneer, an award-winning law firm consulting and executive coach with 30 years of experience leading, innovating and serving as a change-agent and connector. Dubin co created and co chairs Thomson Reuters Women’s Transformative Leadership Forum. She is a 2016 inductee into the Legal Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame and was recognized by Today’s Chicago Woman as one of 100 women making a difference and received the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)’s Distinguished Community Service Award.


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