10/02/2014 05:36 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

Women and People of Color Are the Missing Link on Corporate Boards: What Massachusetts Could Teach Corporate America

America ranks 9th in the world, slightly ahead of Israel, a much smaller country, when it comes to women on corporate boards. According to the nonprofit organization Catalyst, women hold only 17 percent of corporate board seats and that figure has not changed in eight years. The Alliance for Board Diversity reports that white men account for 73 percent of the board seats of Fortune 500 companies, noting little change over the last decade.

The topic of diversity on corporate boards is both timely and important, particularly as the country is becoming more culturally and gender diverse. According to the third annual 2020 Women on Boards Gender Diversity Index of Fortune 1000 Companies, women continue to make steady gains in the boardrooms of Fortune 1000 companies, and now make up 16.6 percent of board membership, up from 14.6 percent in 2011.

While the state of Massachusetts seems to be leading the rest of the country in gender diversity on corporate boards there is still a significant disparity when it comes to racial and ethnic diversity. To level the playing field requires change and that change must come from the top. Robert Rivers, President of Eastern Bank, is one of Massachusetts' chief executive's who understands the financial implication of women and people of color on corporate boards.

In a recent chat with Rivers, on whose board of trustees I serve, he said, "With women and people of color representing close to $12 trillion in purchasing power, the issue of increasing gender and racial diversity on corporate boards is not only a business imperative but a competitive advantage. At Eastern Bank we see a direct correlation between diversity and sustainable growth and profitability. It is well documented that people of color and women on corporate boards are good for business," adds Rivers.

Recently, Eastern Bank and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston both partnered and co-hosted a forum with Get Konnected, a Boston based trans-cultural business networking event and ALPFA Boston (The Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting ), to discuss this topic. The event attracted more than 250 women and executives of color. Remarkably, three of the members on the panel were women and people of color who serve on Eastern Bank's governance body.

Another area of the Massachusetts business sector, where women are shattering the glass ceiling, is the healthcare industry. Healthcare is one the state's key economic drivers and is leading the gender equity revolution on corporate boards. One third of the state's hospital boards, including Massachusetts General Hospital, are led by women, and for the first time its two biggest health insurers, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, have women chairing their boards.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts' CEO Andrew Dreyfus, says having women in senior posts helps the organization understand its customers. "Who makes the decision on health care in families? It's almost always women," said Dreyfus.

Harvard Pilgrim CEO Eric Schultz says of having a woman chairing his company's board, "It's a no brainer for us, as it should be for Corporate America."

To help break the glass ceilings among the Fortune 500s a number of initiatives in Massachusetts and the country have arisen in recent years. Organizations such as 2020 on Corporate Boards, Bentley University's Center for Women and Business and The Alliance for Board Diversity serve as bridges for corporations seeking to diversify at the top. These institutions can answer the important question: why gender and racial diversity matter when it comes to corporate boards. Studies in the US and abroad have shown that companies with women on their boards outperformed less diverse companies financially. And of course by bringing more women and people of diverse backgrounds to the table, there is a broader array of interests, opinions, and experiences that can lead to innovative ideas and more creativity.