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Shelley Bird Headshot

A Rooney Rule for Corporate Boardrooms

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From derogatory language to fans in blackface, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil -- and professional football, or soccer, as we know it -- has been marred by incidents of racial discrimination. Americans have been shocked and appalled at the behavior of some fans and FIFA's apparent lack of intervention. The media coverage has also highlighted the lack of black or minority managers in professional soccer despite the fact that black players are well represented on many professional club squads. This under-representation has been attributed to bias in the professional soccer boardroom, ranging from unconscious bias to institutional racism. Many sports commentators have suggested that a possible fix is the adoption of something like the National Football League's Rooney Rule.

The Rooney Rule mandates that black/minority ethnic candidates must be on the shortlists for senior coaching positions. Essentially, every coach or general manager opening requires that the hiring team interviews at least one minority candidate. Named for Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, the initiative has benefited from the gravitas of a well-respected owner of an incredibly successful football franchise. And, while the Rooney Rule has been polarizing, it has worked.

According to Bleacher Report, since 2003 when the rule was implemented, 17 of 32 teams have had an African-American or Latino head coach or general manager. The Chiefs, Colts and Raiders have had more than one head coach of color during that time frame. By contrast, in the 80 years prior to the implementation of the rule, only seven head coaches of color were hired.

Despite that progress, and regardless of personal opinion on the rule itself, we still need it. Recently the numbers have stalled and there is growing criticism that the rule is no longer working. The Rooney Rule doesn't require owners to hire black head coaches or managers just because a candidate is black, but simply make sure that all qualified candidates are given equal access and a fair review. It ensures a level playing field.

Maybe corporate America should take a page from the NFL playbook. In the U.S., women hold less than 17 percent of board seats of publicly traded companies. And there has been no real movement in that statistic for about eight years. The business case for having more women on boards, and greater diversity overall, is strong. We need corporations to lean in and figure out how to make this happen. I'm not suggesting legislated quotas, but I am suggesting that corporations ensure that women get a fair shot. This is about mobilizing all of the available talent to enable organizations to perform at even higher levels. And there are plenty of board-ready women available and ready to serve. Just imagine what could be achieved if every corporation developed its own Rooney Rule, and every current board member committed to drive this effort and help move the ball up the field.

The numbers are clear. We need more women on corporate boards. Let's not take our eye off this ball.