Business

Shirley Leung

No more excuses for inequality on Mass. boards

It might as well be 1954 when you read the latest report from The Boston Club that shows nearly a quarter of Massachusetts’s biggest companies still have all-male boards.

Now, maybe we can cut these firms some slack because everyone knows changing your board of directors takes time. There’s little turnover because it’s hard to give the old white guy the boot when some companies don’t have a mandatory retirement age or term limits.

Advertisement

I believed that hook, line, and sinker — until I read another statistic from The Boston Club, which released Thursday its annual census of the state’s top 100 public companies. Of the 63 independent directors appointed to these boards over the past year, only 12 were women.

In other words, companies had plenty of chances for change, but few acted on them. Really, boys?

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

No more excuses.

That’s actually the title of the study by The Boston Club, a nonprofit aimed at advancing women in business. Its advisory board was chaired for seven years by a guy named Charlie Baker who helped companies recruit women to boards. You might have heard of him. He just got elected governor.

So chief executives of Massachusetts, take note. If you haven’t been paying attention to why women matter, now would be a good time. The new guy in charge on Beacon Hill cares about this stuff.

Advertisement

The census, based on analysis of Securities and Exchange Commission filings, found women make up 14.9 percent of board directors, an increase of 1.1 percentage points from the previous year. That, sadly, counts as progress.

The number could have been higher, but the members of all-male boards keep bringing in directors that look just like them. Take, for example, these four companies — Altra Industrial Motion , Cognex, Entegris, and IPG Photonics. They all expanded their boards over the past year. Not a single one added a female director to break up the boys club in their boardrooms. And not one of them bothered to call me back to explain why.

Massachusetts companies not only have a problem at the board level, but also in the executive suite. Close to half of those surveyed — 46 — don’t have any women executive officers.

Thankfully, there were some bright spots in the report:

A record number of companies — 76 — have at least one female director, five more than last year.

Today, 31 firms have two female directors, up from 12 in 2010.

The number of female executive officers grew to 81, or 11.8 percent of all executive officers among the top 100 companies.

Still, Pat Flynn, the Bentley University professor who co-authored the study, isn’t celebrating.

“These numbers are still unacceptably low,” she said.

If companies don’t get why they need more women to shatter the glass ceiling, let me appeal to their bottom lines. Studies have shown that firms with diverse boards are more successful. They have higher stock prices, return on equity, and valuations. Call it creative tension. Women break up male-dominated boards, offering different views on how to drive profits and run the business. More women equals more money.

Corporate boards in Massachusetts seem even more antiquated in a week when voters elected four women to statewide offices. We will have a female lieutenant governor, treasurer, attorney general, and auditor. That’s real progress.

Governor Deval Patrick has also been looking at ways the state can light a fire under companies to promote women. In October, he challenged Massachusetts firms to be part of a multiyear initiative with Bentley University’s Center for Women and Business to help advance women in the workplace. His goal is to have 100 companies sign up by the end of the year.

So far, he’s got 18, and another dozen are in discussions about joining the program. I ask again: What are you waiting for?

Karen Spilka, the state senator from Ashland, also is doing her part. When the Legislature goes back in session in January, the Democrat plans to file a resolution urging companies to increase the number of women on their boards and to promote gender equity.

“This should be a no-brainer,” Spilka said.

Let’s hope so.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.