Billionaire Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest people in the world and arguably its most famous investor, recently joked that one reason he became so successful early in his career was because “I only had to compete with half the work force.”
His quip referred to the fact that decades ago men overwhelmingly dominated the ranks of money-earners, and if any women were spotted in corporate executive offices, they likely were fetching coffee.
While women have made huge strides since those days and now hold close to half of all jobs in the United States, Buffett, 82, says they still have a long way to go.
“For most of our history, women – whatever their abilities – have been relegated to the sidelines,” he wrote in an essay published recently in Fortune Magazine.
Pointing to his own family as an example, Buffett said that while he and his two sisters were equally intelligent and their parents treated them as equals growing up, “The moment I emerged from my mother’s womb, my possibilities dwarfed those of my siblings, for I was a boy.”
Buffett believes the world has missed the boat in failing not only to close a big pay gap between men and women, but to put more women into corporate board seats and corner offices.
“If obvious benefits flow from helping the male component of the workforce achieve its potential, why in the world wouldn’t you want to include its counterpart?” he asked.
A recent study of Louisiana women in business leadership positions raised similar questions.
Prepared for Tulane University’s Newcomb College Institute, in partnership with the local chapter of National Association of Women Business Owners and ION (the InterOrganization Network), the report evaluated female participation in the decision-making ranks of 50 publicly traded companies in Louisiana. The study’s findings showed that businesses in Louisiana lag behind other states in terms of female participation.
Women hold only 7 percent of 326 board positions in the companies surveyed, and fewer than 14 percent of executive officer seats are occupied by women the study showed.
Among 190 executives who are the top-paid executives in the companies, just 16 are women.
Newcomb Institute Director Sally Kenney points out that nearly 45 percent of business degrees awarded in the United States go to women and more than half the population is female. “We need to put pressure on these companies to recruit women and develop lists of well-qualified women in Louisiana ready to serve,” she says.
Kenney presented the report during an October luncheon on the Tulane campus that featured several people who are leading the charge to put more women into corporate boardrooms.
Susan Miller Adams, a co-founder of ION, said the goal in getting more women on boards isn’t merely to achieve numeric equality with men. “More diverse leadership will create stronger organizations,” she said.
ION, formed in 2014, operates through 16 regional organizations to help draw more women into positions of power in the business world, in part by developing databases of women who are qualified and available to serve on boards and in executive positions.
One of ION’s aims, Adams said, is to develop role models for young girls and show them a viable path toward success in business.
The event also featured Paula Meyer, a financial services industry veteran who co-founded the Minnesota Chapter of Women Corporate Directors. Meyer, who sits on the boards of three large corporations, offered tips for women who would like to follow a similar route.
While knowledge and expertise are key ingredients for board membership, she said, the path “is dramatically shaped by who you know, not what you know.”
Meyer described how she laid the groundwork for her own election as a board member of Mutual of Omaha, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines, Ia., and First Command Financial Services in Fort Worth, Texas. Her strategy included cultivating relationships with key people who had connections with directors or top executives in those companies.
“I don’t think I would have been invited to join those boards if I hadn’t worked on those relationships,” she said.
Meyer added that women who do land board seats should do their best to help others get there too. “It’s essential that women on corporate boards try to improve the gender diversity of those boards,” she said.
Female board members should ask to become members of nominating and governance committees, or at least attend those committee meetings, in order to be in a position to recommend qualified women when openings arise, she said.
Meyer advised aspiring board members to know their strengths, hone particular skills and knowledge likely to be welcomed by the board they hope to join. “Deep financial expertise and experience in running large companies are incredibly valuable skills in a board room,” she said.
Among 16 locales where similar studies of women in corporate leadership were conducted, Louisiana companies had the lowest ranking, according to the Tulane study.
Numbers Tell the Tale
According to the 2013 Report on Women and Corporate Boards, in 50 publicly traded companies in Louisiana:
• 7.2 percent of 363 total board positions are occupied by women
• 13.6 percent of 287 executive officers are women
• 8.4 percent of the 191 highest-paid executives are women
• Only 1 company in Louisiana has more than 3 women on its corporate board
• 26 of the companies have no women on their boards
• 21 of the companies have no female executives
The report took note of 8 companies in Louisiana that have more than 3 women board members and executive officers:
Board Members and Executive Officers | # of Women
Albemarle Corp. 6
CenturyLink Inc. 4
Entergy Corp. 4
CKX Lands Inc. 4
Stewart Enterprises Inc. 4
Stone Energy Corp. 4
McMoRan Exploration Co. 3
Crown Crafts Inc. 3
The Report on Women and Corporate Boards in Louisiana is available at tulane.edu/newcomb.