Stop Saying There Are No Qualified Women Out There

Seriously, cut it out.

02/16/2016 04:00 pm ET
  • Emily Peck Executive Editor, Business and Technology, The Huffington Post
Tom Merton via Getty Images

Let us please once and for all dismiss this overblown, outdated explanation for the dearth of women at the upper levels of corporate America: the so-called “lack of qualified female candidates.”

There are plenty of qualified women out there. Problem is, many of the men who are doing the hiring don’t actually know any. And when companies insist on hiring new employees through existing social networks, it’s hard to diversify.

This is particularly true at the upper, upper reaches of the business world -- the corporate boardroom, where the people who oversee the chief executives sit atop their privileged perches.

A survey of corporate board members released by executive recruiting firm Spencer Stuart, the WomenCorporateDirectors Foundation and Harvard researchers on Tuesday neatly pinpoints the problem.

For the survey, male and female board members were asked what was holding back gender diversity in the boardroom. The primary reason cited by men (particularly older ones) was a “lack of qualified female candidates.”

Very few women agreed. Instead they cited two primary reasons that women hold only about 20 percent of board seats. First, directors don't prioritize diversity. Second, predominantly male networks of corporate directors fail to uncover qualified women.

Men under 55 years old were less likely to see a lack of qualified women as a problem, naming male-dominated social networks as the primary factor holding women back.

In [older men's] professional life they didn’t come across a lot of women -- that either reported to them or they met at business school,Julie Hembrock Daum, a recruiter for Spencer Stuart who worked on the survey, told The Huffington Post. “They really don’t know them.”

There was a time when there truly was a lack of “qualified women,” for board seats, Daum said. That’s because the ideal board candidate used to be an active chief executive of a public company. And, of course, there weren't -- and still aren't -- many female CEOs. But boards today no longer confine themselves this way, said Daum, who’s helped recruit directors for Amazon, Walmart and Johnson & Johnson.

Last year, 40 percent of the directors placed by Daum’s firm were women. “If you asked me who’s best [for a board], chances are who comes to my mind is a woman. We are all guilty of knowing people like ourselves and thinking they’re the best.”

The study’s researchers surveyed around 4,000 directors from 60 countries on a variety of issues, including risk management, economic uncertainty and the feasibility of setting quotas for women in the boardroom (basically a nonstarter in the U.S.). The survey section on gender diversity was given to a random subset of 243 respondents.

On the bright side, far more firms are starting to care about diversity. This goes far beyond the concept of simply finding more women, but includes finding more young board members, more people of color, those who are more in tune with technology, etc.

More companies say they are prioritizing finding women -- nearly 60 percent of companies, according to a recent Spencer Stuart study. More and more boards are actively trying to look outside their networks, Daum said. (Of course her firm wants this to be true, since it’s their job to help boards find people they haven’t heard of.) 

Progress is crawling, in part, because a board of directors has Supreme Court-like turnover. People get these jobs and they hold on to them for a long time. This year, 31 percent of new directors were women, according to Spencer Stuart’s data. However, only 8 percent of seats on the S&P 500 opened up.

“It’s slow,” she said.

Of course it doesn’t help that there aren’t enough women below the board level, either. Only 4 percent of S&P 500 CEOs are women. If that number were 50 percent, things would probably be different in the boardroom, Daum concedes. You have to solve the issue at all levels.

In the meantime, though, please stop tweeting stuff like this: 

CONVERSATIONS