The data has been in for years—companies with women board members are more successful by all sorts of objective measures. But Silicon Valley’s tech industry continues to be a boys’ club. According to the Choose Possibility Project, 70 to 75 percent of the thousands of privately funded tech companies in the United States today have all-male boards of directors.
Choose Possibility thinks it can help fix this by building a database of women leaders qualified to serve on the boards of private tech companies. The Choose Possibility effort started in May when 59 women in technology co-signed an open letter to the tech community urging tech leaders to do more to support and advance female entrepreneurs. The group launched its Boardlist earlier this month as a private beta with more than 600 women in the database. It’s since added another hundred or so. Choose Possibility founder Sukhinder Singh Cassidy put the list together by contacting CEOs, entrepreneurs, and other leaders in tech—men and women—and asked each to suggest between 10 and 30 women who would be great candidates for tech boards, Cassidy explained in a post published on Medium and other sites. Cassidy also asked some of the top investors in tech companies to identify companies in their portfolio that will be needing new independent board members. These will likely be the first companies to tap into the new database.
It’s a good idea that, like many good ideas, seems obvious: Make it easier for companies to find qualified women when they have a board seat to fill. And it reminded me of a parallel concern back in the early 1990s, when companies in a variety of industries were suddenly realizing the value of a different kind of diversity—that is, a diversity of educational background. Specifically, forward thinking companies were thinking it might be a good thing to have a tech person on their board, not just financial experts. These days, it seems obvious that technologists bring an important perspective, but back then, it wasn’t always a given.
In 1994, I interviewed a few of those engineers serving on corporate boards. Just like women on boards today, they were a rare breed. They said the boards were quick to lean on them for help with technical decisions, of course. For example, said one, “It is easier for the board to approve certain expenditures in computer systems when there is a representative on the board who understands technical issues.”
But they also indicated that they do indeed think differently than financiers and lawyers, and that “this different pattern of thought applies…to all the diverse situations faced by boards, to the benefit of those boards.
Another EE serving on a corporate board also pointed out that a technical background makes one able to “understand if managment is doing something ridiculous.” These last two quotes could apply as appropriately to women on boards today as they did to EEs on boards then. (It does seem that we too often hear about startup companies doing something ridiculous; perhaps a little more diversity on boards might reduce this behavior.)
One of those EEs/board members in 1994 was Judy Estrin. She is a co-founder of eight tech companies, including Bridge Communications, and has served on boards for Rockwell, Sun Microsystems, Fedex, and Disney. Since then, she’s had a couple of decades to see both kinds of diversity, educational background and gender, in action. This week, we chatted about Boardlist and the effort to get more women on the boards of tech startups. It’s definitely good for the companies, said Estrin. She added:
Having women in the boardroom makes it more likely that a company will drive diversity throughout the organization, as board members act as role models and create an environment where male leaders tend to become more comfortable and open to working with women as peers. Women can also bring a perspective at the board level that impacts how a company develops and markets products that appeal to a diverse customer base.
Estrin also mentioned an important way that women improve boards’ decision making:
I believe that cognitive diversity is a critical factor in the success of groups. Women often bring a different way of approaching problems, and have a different style when asking questions than their male counterparts—the combination of which makes the board more effective.
Estrin emphasizes the importance of understanding that just as you don't bring an engineer on a board to just focus on tech issues, or a finance executive to focus only on accounting issues, women on boards are not just there to bring up ‘gender issues.’”
While she thinks that something like Boardlist can help—as long as it reaches outside Silicon Valley to really bring in a diversity of thought—Estrin acknowledges that change takes a long time. One problem: Companies’ definition of what qualifies someone to be a director is too narrow. Because many of them seek directors who have founder or CEO experience, says Estrin, “It limits the pool.” Companies need to look beyond the traditional titles, she advises.
At least now, thanks to Boardlist, companies have a place to start looking.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.