About a dozen public companies in the Pittsburgh area had no women directors eight years ago when Sarah Stewart moved to the region to open an office for an executive recruiting firm. She recalls being surprised.
This year, just three companies have boardrooms filled only with men.
After trailing national statistics for years, women have made headway in gaining board seats at Pittsburgh companies.
The share of females on the region’s publicly held corporate boards jumped to 20 percent from 17 percent last year — boosted by a wave of new female directors, including some at companies that a year ago had no women sitting at the table.
Nationwide figures also hover around 20 percent. Consulting firm Deloitte’s Board Diversity Census says women comprised 20.2 percent of seats on Fortune 500 boards in 2016, and the most recent data from nonprofit initiative 2020 Women on Boards says women hold 19.7 percent of Fortune 1000 board seats.
The gains seen on the boards of Pittsburgh companies is “very positive, obviously,” said Ms. Stewart, director of Industrial Search Partners, which has an office Downtown.
“We’ve definitely seen progress in Pittsburgh to an accelerated degree,” she said.
To be sure, the annual data compiled by the Post-Gazette typically gets a significant bump from foreign-owned companies with major operations in the region. Germany-based Siemens has six women on its 20-person board; and Royal Philips Electronics, a Dutch company, has three women out of a total seven directors, or 43 percent. That’s because European governments have instituted quotas on corporations requiring them to have more females on their boards.
The local numbers also benefit from the inclusion of U.S. companies that aren’t based here but have a large employment base in southwestern Pennsylvania: Verizon Communications, which has four women on its board; Citizens Financial, which has three; and WesBanco, the Wheeling, W.Va.-based bank that added two women in the past year for a total of four female directors.
Another bank, KeyCorp of Cleveland, the parent company of KeyBank, has five women on its board, for a total 31 percent. It entered the market last year via its acquisition of First Niagara.
Still, locally based firms have made notable gains.
Companies that a year ago had no women on their boards but have since added one were Black Box, Rice Energy and Wabtec.
Ampco-Pittsburgh, a Carnegie specialty steelmaker that had none, now has two women board members.
Those that still lack women on their boards are Universal Stainless & Alloy Products, WVS Financial, and Limbach, an engineering and construction business based in the Strip District that went public in July 2016 through a merger with an Illinois firm.
‘Reached a plateau’
Despite the improvement locally, Ms. Stewart, who is active in the 2020 Women on Boards initiative, said the overall push to get more women on boards is “slow … and we have reached a plateau.”
“What needs to happen now is we need to see the numbers of women increase on those boards with just one woman. There’s no critical mass until three women are on a board. That’s when their voices are heard.”
Momentum to achieve more gender parity has grown in the past decade as numerous research reports have found that having more women on boards improves company financials. Proponents also say female directors can raise awareness among top executives about the importance of hiring, promoting and mentoring more women managers.
Because the pace of change has been so sluggish, a number of campaigns have sprung up to address the issue.
Launched a decade ago in Boston, 2020 Women on Boards aims to increase the number of women on corporate boards to 20 percent by the year 2020.
“We are energized that our region’s numbers are up this year,” said Christy Uffelman, managing partner for the coaching and consulting firm Align Leadership’s Pittsburgh office and chair of 2020 Women on Boards’ Pittsburgh initiative.
The nonprofit holds a “national conversation” on board diversity every November in cities nationwide. This is the third year Pittsburgh will participate.
In the United Kingdom, the 30% Club launched in 2010 with a goal of having women occupy 30 percent of board seats in UK-based companies. Since then, it has broadened its reach with initiatives in Ireland, Australia, the United States and elsewhere.
But achieving more gender parity on boards is not an entirely new cause. Ms. Uffelman credited the Executive Women’s Council of Greater Pittsburgh with launching successful efforts in the 1980s to place women on nonprofit and government boards.
Now the EWC also works to get women on corporate boards. Its online database contains the names and credentials of women who want to be considered for board appointments. Currently, about 150 candidates are listed.
Among other local initiatives is Deloitte’s Board Ready Women, which in May wrapped up its second annual cohort for women at the executive or management level who are trying to make the jump to corporate boards.
The 20 women enrolled in the program work in law, energy, private equity, technology, banking, higher education and other industries.
‘I could fly-fish’
At its final session in May, women with corporate board experience were invited to provide insight on how they got those seats.
“In reality, the path to the board is the path to the corporate suite,” said Dawne Hickton, former chief executive of RTI International Metals who sits on the boards of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Norsk Titanium, Jacobs Engineering Group and Triumph Group.
To get exposure, she advised women to work toward positions where they will be highly involved in day-to-day business strategy and push their bosses to allow them to make presentations to the boards of the companies where they work.
When she started her career as a lawyer for U.S. Steel in the 1980s, Ms. Hickton recalled being told that “blast furnaces and coal mines were no place for a woman.”
She was later recruited to RTI as its general counsel and was part of a five-person executive team. During a financial crisis at the metals company, the chairman called her on a Saturday night and “told me I was being appointed chief financial officer to fix things.”
She later became chief executive and a board member.
“Once you are the CEO, you are a hot ticket” for board consideration by companies, she said.
Good news for those who don’t like the links. Retired state Supreme Court Justice Cynthia Baldwin assured the women that playing golf isn’t the only way to network with men who may be influential executives.
“I don’t golf but if there is something you’re comfortable doing, speak out,” she said.
The former judge sits on the board of chemicals producer Koppers Inc. and was the first African-American woman to chair Penn State University’s board of trustees.
For her, an opportunity came when she heard a group talking about an upcoming fishing outing to Ligonier in Westmoreland County. She wasn’t invited, so she spoke up.
“I told them I could fly-fish and said I’d meet them there.”
The Uber example
Just last month, the scarcity of women on corporate boards became a subplot in the dramatic departure of Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick.
When Mr. Kalanick took an indefinite leave amid reports about mismanagement and rampant sexual harassment at the ride-share giant’s Silicon Valley workplace, it was the company’s first female director — former web publishing maven Arianna Huffington — who emerged as its most visible leader and spokeswoman.
The lack of female perspective in Uber’s top leadership team became even more clear when Ms. Huffington observed during a company meeting that having at least one female director would encourage other women to join a corporate board. Uber had just named another female to its board — Wan Ling Martello, an executive vice president at Nestle SA to its board.
Another board member, David Bonderman, chose that inopportune moment to remark that more women would result in “more talking.”
Despite his rapid apology, the backlash was so intense that Mr. Bonderman, whose investment firm owns a stake in Uber, resigned the same day.
Joyce Gannon: email@example.com or 412-263-1580.