Corporate careers; Women in the board room

'No longer limited to the ranks of highly visible achievers in the arts, education, government, or science for their choices, chairmen are searching for women who, because of their expertise, can contribute a unique sensitivity and understanding of the substance of business to their boards.' - Felice Schwartz

While the number of women serving on the boards of the country's largest corporations flattened this year, many observers think the lack of growth is tied to today's economic and political climate, and will simply prove a regrouping period for women who are qualified to serve on such boards.

Certainly those women who have already found room at the top have won their laurels in appreciation and esteem of board colleagues and company heads.

True, the numbers are still small. Of the 16,000 seats available on the boards of the top 1,300 companies listed by Fortune magazine, only 336, or 2.1 percent, are now held by women.

Of the 500 largest industrials, one-third of the companies have at least one woman director. Of the largest 300 diversified financial, service, and retail firms, slightly more than half have at least one woman director. A total of 396 companies have women directors occmpying 490 positions. A very elite group of 25 women serve on four or more boards each.

Thirteen years ago, in 1969, only 46 women served on the 1,300 boards, and these were often related to company principals.

Companies, buffeted by change and new problems and needing all the help they can get, are now not as likely to seek well-bred ''token'' women or comfortable and often agreeably silent women relatives.

The profile of the woman director has been changing drastically over the past few years, says Felice N. Schwartz, president of Catalyst, a national nonprofit organization that promotes the active participation of women in corporations and the professions.

''Corporate awareness of vital and well-trained women as a resource for leadership has risen dramatically,'' says Mrs. Schwartz. ''These new women directors are, for the most part, markedly different from their predecessors. Almost all chairmen have now seen women functioning superbly at high levels. No longer limited to the ranks of highly visible achievers in the arts, education, government, or science for their choices, chairmen are searching for women who, because of their expertise, can contribute a unique sensitivity and understanding of the substance of business to their boards.''

Dr. Juanita M. Kreps is an economist who is a former secretary of commerce and vice-president emeritus of Duke University. She also serves on the boards of directors of seven companies - Eastman Kodak, Reynolds Industries, AT&T, UAL Inc., Citicorp, J. C. Penney, and Armco Steel. Describing the women who will serve on corporate boards in the future, she told an audience gathered recently for the Catalyst Twentieth Anniversary Dinner: ''A decade from now women directors will be more numerous, more knowledgeable about business matters, more widely represented on board committees, younger, and probably more vocal. Drawn more often from business, they will handle routine corporate issues with ease and be able to concentrate their attention on strategic decisions. Many of them will be chief executive officers.''

Dr. Kreps contends that fellow directors who are men will be happy with this outcome because they will have found a new source of talent, a dedicated supply of problem solvers, pleasant company, and perhaps more style and flair in the board room. Good ideas, she predicts, will be welcomed from both genders, and the chances of finding solutions to problems will be improved. She foresees the atmosphere becoming more relaxed, the perspective broadened, and the approach to issues more civilized and rational. It will be clear to all, she says with a smile, that ''the addition of women is not now and never will be hazardous to corporations.''

The average age of women now serving on boards is 57, although some are in their early 40s. Typical backgrounds of 70 percent of women directors today include government, law, nonprofit administration, education, and business. According to a report last year in Forbes magazine, average remuneration to those who serve on corporate boards is about $14,570.

Shirley Young, who serves on the board of Dayton-Hudson Corporation in Minneapolis, is representative of the new breed of woman director. After 25 years in the business world, she is now executive vice-president of Grey Advertising Inc. in New York, where she is involved in marketing planning and strategy development. Each year she is in contact with a great variety of other businesses.

Mrs. Young was born in Shanghai, China, and, as the daughter of a Chinese diplomat, lived in several different countries. After the political change in China, she came to the US and graduated from Wellesley College in 1955 with a degree in economics. While continuing her career, she married and had three sons.

Now in a second marriage to a Detroit automotive executive, she maintains two homes and juggles commuter schedules between the two cities. She flies about once a month to a Dayton-Hudson board meeting in Minneapolis and also fills occasional speaking engagements to professional organizations and universities around the country.

Mrs. Young says matter of factly that her personal background has made her able to cope quickly with change and the unexpected. Her diverse experiences and her exposure to many difficulties, she says, have given her a breadth of perspective that is proving invaluable as she sits as the single woman on a board of 15 men, helping guide the future of a $4.5 billion corporation.

Business, Mrs. Young says, is in a dramatic transitional period. Nothing is calm and predictable in the business world today. It is full of shocks and new kinds of competition, high interest rates, new growth factors, and consumer and environmentalist considerations. It is a time, she says, when corporations must be innovative, forge ahead in new ground, and find new solutions. It is here she feels the judgments and insights of capable women will prove most helpful. ''Women are used to coping with change,'' she insists, ''and that is why they have such a definite contribution to make to business today.''

The key to appointment to a corporate board, Mrs. Young says, is summed up in two words: ''demonstrated success.'' The woman who has proven herself elsewhere is the most likely candidate to be invited to help guide the long-term strategies and investment, personnel, and public policies of a great corporation.

Since 1977 Catalyst has maintained a Corporate Board Resource. To assist in the advancement of women to board status, this resource gives corporate chairmen access to information about women with outstanding records of professional achievement. It contains the dossiers of over 1,200 women, and to date more than 62 corporations have used the resource to add a woman to their boards.

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