11/20/2012 02:39 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

The Boardroom Series: What's Holding Women Back From Getting on the Board?

Women may be chipping away at the glass ceiling, but when it comes to elbowing our way into the boardroom, progress is painfully slow. In fact, the percentage of women on boards of S&P 1500 companies barely budged from 12.1 percent in 2009 to 12.6 percent today. And the average board of a Fortune 500 company in the U.S. is just 16 percent female.

What gives? The good 'ole boys clubs mentality is hard at work once again. Nearly half of male directors say a lack of qualified candidates is contributing to this trend.

But according to Christine Westland, Director of Account Management for International OEMs at Brocade, it's not expertise or experience holding women back. It's a matter of women needing to find where they fit and marketing themselves properly.

Early in her career, Christine worked at Apple doing everything from sales operations and new product development, to software licensing and working with contract OEMs. Now at Brocade, a networking company that works with storage and server vendors, she's also on the advisory board of Speck Design, an ID and market research company in Palo Alto.

I recently spoke with Christine and she offered some insight for breaking down the barriers to the boardroom, drawing from her own personal experiences:

Find Your Opportunity
Christine said, "You can always get stopped by the daunting big picture, but I do think that there are opportunities." She cites the growing number of startups run by women as a key opportunity in the male-dominated Silicon Valley. "Yes, there is a boys' club and it's a tight network. But there are opportunities in all corporations. You just have to look."

Christine recently participated in Watermark's Board Access Program, which helps prepare women for inclusion on boards. The program offers participants the opportunity to take part in board simulations with sitting board members, meetings with board recruiters to help hone their resumes, and a dedicated mentor and coach for twelve months. Christine said the Watermark program was very useful, "It helps you to understand how to position yourself for a board." And it also underscored a very basic notion: networking with others.

"It is constantly networking, finding people in that realm and understanding how to move yourself into a place where you could get the opportunity to serve on a board. I still think that the main way women are going to get onto boards is not through recruiters. It's really going to be through relationships and developing those connections. You have to network with a lot of different people, but you have to focus your network towards the board scenario."

Do Your Homework
Not every board will be the best match for you. It's all about chemistry and finding what makes the most sense for your specific expertise and experience.

Christine's advice: "I think that when you talk to different people on the Board, you have to be intuitive about it. It is just like interviewing for a job. You should talk to every member on the board, because when you get in a boardroom, there are personalities. I also think, as a woman, you never want to join the board feeling like you would be the token woman. Ideally you join because you have the relationships and because the board members value your ability to contribute."

Sell Yourself
You've found the opportunity and you've done your due diligence in making sure it's the right fit for you... Now what?

Christine knows from experience that it then becomes a matter of aggressively seeking the position. One key aspect in doing so is knowing how to market yourself; essentially, convincing the board members you're right for the job.

In my next post, I'll draw from discussion with another successful woman, a current Cisco executive, who offers insight on making the most of your time on the board.

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