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Only 1 in 5 board members are women at Wisconsin’s top 50 public companies, despite evidence that female leaders perform better

The Family Violence Center had several unlisted cottages on the west side of Green Bay as well as its previous house on Ashland Avenue.

At that time, it was common for shelter locations to be undisclosed, but that could limit awareness of the unlisted shelters.

“Most shelters were kept in secret because there was a fear those who were in the shelter might be in harm’s way if their abuser knew where they were staying,” Finco said.

Susan Finco, member of the Green Bay Packers executive committee and board of directors, is pictured at Lambeau Field on Jan. 31, 2020, in Green Bay, Wis.

Susan Finco, member of the Green Bay Packers executive committee and board of directors, is pictured at Lambeau Field on Jan. 31, 2020, in Green Bay, Wis

Finco said the Family Violence Center had a positive relationship with local law enforcement and believed that people at Golden House would be safe.

“We all believed it was the right thing to do,” Finco said. “It’s easier to make those decisions if you believe you’re doing the right thing. It was criticized by some as not being prudent.”

As a woman, she could empathize with what female survivors of domestic violence might need. And as a member of the board, she could make a difference.

A board of directors is made up of experts from different subject areas who advise a business or nonprofit on its strategy and investments.

The nonprofit Milwaukee Women inc has tracked the percentage of women appointed to public company boards for 15 years. Last year, it reported that about one in five board members in Wisconsin’s top 50 public companies were women, up from 18% in 2018.

Finco now serves on a number of boards, including the Green Bay Packers’ board of directors. She and C. Patricia LaViolette became the second and third women to join the board in 2000, though it can include up to 45 people (it currently has 42).

Finco said that at that time, there was an earnest effort to include more women on the Packers board. She’s since become the first woman on the Packers’ seven-member executive committee, which leads the board.

There’s been sure, but incremental, progress when it comes to gender diversity on boards.

The board room may seem abstract and faraway, but who’s in the board room — and whether they’re representative of America’s diversity — has consequences for everyday Americans.

Gender diversity on boards isn’t only fair — it’s profitable

Jennica Webster, co-director at the Institute for Women’s Leadership at Marquette University, said how well companies perform determines the health of our economy.

“Most of us might not think of ourselves as shareholders but many of us actually are, even if that’s only through our savings, 401(k) investments, etc.,” Webster said in an email.

The interests of shareholders, including people trying to save up for retirement, are supposed to be protected by a board.

And though they’re still outnumbered four-to-one on the boards of Wisconsin’s top public companies, research published by the Harvard Business Review suggests women perform better than men in most leadership skills.

As measured by employee reviews, women outscored men at taking initiative, practicing self-development, having a drive for results, displaying high integrity and honesty, contributing to the growth of others, as well as championing change and communicating “powerfully and prolifically.”

“The research on this is very clear, the presence of women on corporate boards can lead to better and more complex decision-making that results in higher financial performance for companies,” Webster said. “Moreover, (having) women on corporate boards is related to better ethical compliance and increased corporate social and environmental responsibility.”

Lindsay Hammerer, a partner at the global auditing and tax firm KPMG and chair of Milwaukee Women inc, said that while supporting diversity in corporate leadership might seem like a feel-good thing that companies do to enhance their reputation, the real driver for diversity is profit.

study by Boston Consulting Group found companies that reported above-average diversity on their management teams also reported 19% more revenue from new products or services than companies with below-average leadership diversity.

“When you look at the common traits and work styles of women versus men, women bring many times enhanced communication skills,” Hammerer said. “They tend to bring empathy to their work. They tend to take a little bit less risk — probably take more measured risk — than men do. They tend to work less with their egos.”

Women may also understand a company’s customers or clientele better. The CEO of Lands’ End, a company based in Dodgeville, said the company has found the apparel industry is decided by female consumers.

“If your customers are generally female — and 80 percent of our customer database is female — it’s nice to have more women involved in our decision-making because they’re going to have a better understanding of who the customer is and what it is she wants,” Lands’ End CEO Jerome Griffith said.

Lands’ End has three women out of a total eight directors. The board is chaired by Josephine Linden.

But women are still drastically underrepresented

Wisconsin has been slightly below the national average when it comes to gender diversity on the boards of publicly traded companies, Hammerer said, though it’s following the same basic trend line.

According to a report by the organization 2020 Women on Boards, 18.5% of board seats were held by women in companies publicly traded on the Nasdaq composite in 2019. The percentage was slightly higher — over 22% — for companies traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

This same report found 52% of companies in the Russell 3000 Index — a stock market index of 3,000 U.S. companies — had at least a fifth of their board seats held by women. Of these companies, 41% had one or no women on their boards.

“The most important thing is we, women, represent 50% of the population,” said Christy Brown, Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Southeast’s CEO and a board member at Northwestern Mutual Series Fund. “So the fact we are not represented in those same types of numbers seems as though it’s a disservice to whatever service or product, because they’re not hearing the voice of 50% of the population.”

Milwaukee Women inc supports the idea called the “power of 3” — that is, to have at least three female directors on a board. Studies show that companies with three or more female directors outperform those with fewer or no women, Hammerer said.

Fifteen out of Wisconsin’s top 50 publicly traded companies (30%) had three or more female directors on their boards in 2019. It was 25% in 2018.

“You need a certain critical mass of women in order for their voices to be heard and produce a noticeable impact on board dynamics and decision-making,” Webster said.

But this rule of thumb only goes so far.

“I think it depends on how many people are actually on the board,” Brown said, noting that a lot of nonprofit boards are larger, and three women may not have the same impact on a 24-person board as they would on a six-person board.

Boards that seek a variety of skills naturally end up more diverse

Laurie Benson graduated from UW-Madison with a degree in nursing. She wanted to be a clinical nurse practitioner in mental health. Instead, she ended up traveling around Wisconsin and working for the American Red Cross.

While she was working at the bloodmobile, someone from Xerox donated blood and tapped her on the shoulder to invite her to interview. Xerox was looking for job candidates with no sales background. She ended up working at Xerox for eight years.

After that, she co-founded a company for technology solutions. As CEO, she had to put together a company board that would make decisions about the direction of the company, and in the process of consulting with board members from other public companies, Benson got plugged into a network of people who serve as board members.

Today, Benson is a member of the Appleton-based northeast advisory board for First Business Financial Services, as well as Bassett Mechanical, MIG Commercial Real Estate and TrafficCast International.

Her perspective: Nontraditional backgrounds like her own have value in a board room, and gender diversity comes organically to boards when they consider a variety of different skill sets.

“The nursing lens has great relevancy in the board room because nurses are trained and expert at accepting the environment, working in teams, collaborating with others, and to solve problems amid complexity,” Benson said.

Christy Brown’s legal training and knowledge of finance specifically aligns with what Northwestern Mutual sought for her board position.

But she brings unique expertise from the nonprofit and academic worlds, since she was executive vice president and general counsel of Milwaukee Area Technical College and vice chancellor of finance and administrative affairs for UW-Milwaukee.

“The goal of the board I’m on is to protect the policyholders’ interests. Most boards you are protecting the shareholders’ interests,” Brown said. “I bring the perspective of someone who is the protected, not somebody who is in the industry.”

And Finco acknowledges her background of public and community relations might not be the first thing people think of when they consider board-appropriate expertise. Usually, that’s legal or financial.

But business leaders are learning to value other skills like marketing, public relations and data analytics, Finco said.

“I’m fortunate I’m on boards that are fairly well diversified,” she said. “Although, I have to admit, every board I sit on right now is talking about diversity and the need for more diversity on boards.”

President and CEO of Society Insurance Rick Parks said the company uses a professional recruiter with a broad set of contacts for its board.

Parks said some organizations may source board members from their own personal contacts, and after 40 years in the industry, he has a lot of male contacts that have been in the industry for a long time, too.

“Going outside of your own personal contacts, I think, is a step that is kind of important,” Parks said.

Finco has advised women who are interested in serving on boards to choose a cause that matters to them and start with nonprofit boards to build up the skill set to serve on more boards.

She has also advised women to network. That can be difficult for women, she said, who have many responsibilities besides their careers. But networking can be as simple as grabbing a coffee with someone.

And Brown said that mentors, both men and women, have to advocate for women to have board positions, Brown said. Her mentors advocated for her, and Brown in turn advocates for other women.

Benson said that to create a diverse board, “you need to have the courage, and the process, and the pipeline, to consider people who are not known to you.”

But there’s good news, she said: “We see that happen more and more.”

Contact Nusaiba Mizan at (920)-431-8310 or nmizan@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nusaiblah.

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