July is not the best of time of the year to get busy businesspeople to spend the afternoon at the State House.
But when the issue is putting more women on corporate boards, you can understand why they would show up. The gap remains stark: Women held only about 15 percent of the board seats a year ago among the 100 largest public companies in the state, according to The Boston Club’s research.
Trish Karter is among the cause’s biggest champions. The former Dancing Deer Baking Co. CEO hosted a forum of C-level types last June at MIT to discuss improving pay for women and increasing their representation on boards of directors. That event helped prompt state Senator Karen Spilka, Democrat of Ashland, to file a bill aimed at encouraging corporate boards with fewer than nine directors to have at least two women, and larger ones to have at least three.
Now, the bill will get its day at the State House. Karter plans to join other high-profile executives on Tuesday to advocate for the legislation. The Legislature’s labor and workforce committee will take it up alongside separate bills aimed at strengthening the state’s laws on equal pay for women and improving accommodations for workers who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
The new bill addressing board seats also would encourage companies to disclose the number of women on their boards. Although the bill would be nonbinding, Karter said it can still have a big impact by sending an important message.
“You talk to almost any CEO about this issue and they say, ‘Yeah, we agree,’ and then nothing happens,” Karter said. “If we can improve our performance … I see this is as yet one more way in which Massachusetts can outperform its neighboring states and the nation as a whole.”
Among those scheduled to testify in favor of the bill is a panel with Biogen senior director Javier Barrientos, Eastern Bank president Bob Rivers, and Bennie Wiley, the former CEO of The Partnership.
Rivers acknowledges his company has fallen short of what he would like to see: Currently, he said, two of Eastern Bank’s 12 board members are women. Rivers said he is eager to improve that number in part because it’s simply better for business.
“The business issue is making sure you have the greatest diversity of thought at your company,” Rivers said, “that you’re taking advantage of the greatest pool of talent available.”Jon Chesto can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.