by Esther Shein

Women IT leaders bring fresh perspectives to corporate boards

Jan 29, 2020
CareersDiversity and InclusionIT Leadership

Organizations with diverse corporate boards perform better, innovate more, and attract and retain better talent. Women IT leaders are ready and are heeding the call.

women in it daphne jones
Credit: Destiny Transformations Group

Attention corporate boards: If you’re in the market for a new board member, Jaynee Beach wants to talk to you. Beach, director of IT application development at Woodforest National Bank, in The Woodlands, Texas, is ready and hopeful she will be able to obtain her first board position in the not-too-distant future.

A self-described “unashamed geek” who is “constantly curious” and has several years of IT experience under her belt, Beach says she has a lot to contribute. As a member of senior leadership, she serves on Woodforest’s internal board of directors and is a member of its IT steering committee. “There is a massive translation breakdown between business speak and geek speak,’’ she says. Beach doesn’t state the obvious, but another important criteria making her an attractive candidate for a corporate board seat is the fact that she is a woman.

When prompted, Beach says she offers a strikingly different view of the world than men do.

“For one thing, I think most men make their way into the boardroom via competition —they have to best everyone else,’’ she observes. “Most women I’ve seen in tech, we have advanced our way by building coalitions, breaking down silos, building collaboration, and what’s unique to women is we’re less about trying to compete.”

Beach’s years in a field dominated by men have led her to believe that they “participate in bad habits, meaning they hoard information, or they try to build their fiefdom.” Yet, she doesn’t know whether this is the case at the senior leadership level “because quite frankly, there’s not a lot of women there. There’s a lot in entry-level and secondary-level [positions] and then they either switch to something not tech related or drop out altogether.”

That makes female IT leaders with long-term experience a “rare find,” says Beach, who last fall joined the Digital Directors Network (DDN), a group that aims to improve digital diversity in the corporate boardroom. Female IT leaders are “going to have more value at the boardroom level even than the senior leadership level,” she says.

Wanted: Digital and diverse boards

Even before California became the first state to mandate that every public company in the state have at least one female director by the end of 2019 or face a $100,000 fine, companies were starting to see the value in having diverse and digitally savvy boards. After all, technology is no longer a nice-to-have, but a must if they are to remain competitive — and even stay in business.

Jaynee Beach, director of IT application development, Woodforest National Bank

Jaynee Beach, director of IT application development, Woodforest National Bank

Yet, a 2019 MIT study of 1,233 U.S. companies with at least $1 billion in revenue, found that only 24 percent of their boards are “digitally savvy,” which the university defines as having an understanding of how digital technologies such as social, mobile, analytics, cloud and the internet of things will impact how companies will succeed in the next decade.

Separate research has shown that “if you have a female CIO and a tech person [on a board] you’re getting two for the price of one. It makes a lot of sense,” says Stephanie Woerner, a research scientist at the MIT Sloan Center for Information Systems Research (CISR), and an author of the study. Female IT leaders “bring gender diversity and savvy, and boards are lacking both.”

Regardless of whether they serve in IT positions, “female board members help temper the overconfidence of male CEOs, improving overall decision-making for the company,’’ according to research published in a 2019 Harvard Business Review article. Echoing Woerner, the authors say their research found that female board directors bring a greater diversity in viewpoints, and that they tend to be “less conformist and more likely to express their independent views than male directors because they do not belong to old-boy networks.”

The article concludes that “female board representation can be especially beneficial in helping firms weather crises.” 

In the big picture, there are signs of progress. In 2019, for the first time, all companies in the S&P 500 now include at least one female board member, according to a survey by global financial services firm BDO. The same survey found that only 24 percent of board members are highly familiar with their organization’s data breach response plan.

However, a 2019 report by Women in Technology’s The Leadership Foundry and American University, found that women hold 231 (16 percent) of the 1,467 board seats in publicly held companies in the Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., region. Of the 162 companies surveyed, 15 percent (24) had three or more women serving as board directors, representing a slight decrease in the number of companies from the 2018 study.

While The Leadership Foundry Chair Denise Hart called the regional findings disappointing, the report expresses optimism about changes at the national level. “We continue to see national and global research reflecting corporate enthusiasm for board gender diversity progress,’’ the report said.

Gender diversity and technology are the top two skills for board members, according to Bob Zukis, founder of the 2-year-old DDN, and a business professor at the University of Southern California. While there is no requirement that boards include tech leaders, Zukis believes there will be, to improve oversight on digital and cybersecurity matters.

The California law, coupled with the women’s movement in the past couple of years have “had more impact [on the] gender diversity issue than digital diversity,’’ says Zukis, who is a former PwC consultant. DDN is working to educate both boards and CIOs and CISOs on cybersecurity and digital oversight.

“The problem is there’s a digital leadership crisis in corporate America and it starts in the board room — you don’t understand these issues so how can you drive digital transformation and cybersecurity risk?” Zukis says. “The last frontier of digital transformation is the boardroom. … You would have thought they would have figured it out, but they haven’t.”

Women are well positioned to fill those digital holes on boards, he says. “They are out there; there’s a good number of more than qualified women tech execs in DDN’s membership,’’ as many as 100, he says, “who would be ready, willing and qualified.”

Female IT leaders are very motivated to join corporate boards and have been for quite some time, agrees Robin Toft, founder and CEO of Toft Group, an executive search firm. The challenge, though, is that “historically, 70 percent of boards haven’t gone out to search,” and 80 percent hire through their network, she says, and 95 percent of corporations are run by men. “So if it’s not mandated, they won’t take it out to search; they’ll hire what they know.”

women on boards

“If you are a private company, pre-IPO or even a public company and you don’t have a strategy for building a diverse board, you are falling behind your competitors and will likely face business challenges,” said Michelle Bailey, Research Fellow for IDC’s Social Impact Research. “All our data points to better business outcomes as diversity in the employee ranks grow, especially in senior leadership. And local laws are changing quickly.”

The California law has sparked massive change, says Toft, who is also the author of the book We Can: The Executive Woman’s Guide to Career Advancement.

“All of a sudden, they looked around and realized they didn’t know women and started going out to search firms,’’ she says. “We did more board searches across the board in 2019 than we have in 10 years of running this company.”

She believes the rest of the country is not far behind California. “Chicago has some sort of directive already and I do think the Northeast will be the next domino to fall,’’ Toft says. “I think there’s no turning back the clock now. … There’s nothing but women on board training initiatives and women are rising to the occasion.”

Use your network

Daphne E. Jones, director of management consultancy Destiny Transformations Group, in Miami Beach, Fla., currently sits on three corporate boards, and says the time has come for creating diverse boards. “We have to change the trajectory; that’s part of my purpose,’’ she says. “I’m going to die trying.”

Daphne E. Jones, director, Destiny Transformations Group

Daphne E. Jones, director, Destiny Transformations Group

Over half of the opportunities to get on a board come from within your network, according to Jones, who retired in 2017 as senior executive and CIO of GE Healthcare Global Services. “They say your network is your net worth, because without that, you don’t thrive.”

Toft notes that sometimes women lack the confidence to aggressively network when they are seeking a board position. “This whole creating your network thing is paramount and women are just catching on that they have to do it,’’ she says. It is especially important because “we all work in industries created by men for men.”

When Jones decided she wanted to serve on a board, she reached out to her network, including former CEOs and CIO peers, about her aspirations. “I told everyone I knew — even the guy who parked my car at the valet station,’’ she jokes. It paid off when Jones got a call from Masonite International, which became her first board position in 2018.

She prepared for the first interview by studying the company to understand their marketing strategy and looking at information that was public, including proxy statements and annual reports. Jones also relied on her background to figure out where she could add value. “It’s about assisting and asking questions and making some suggestions and observations,” she says. “You have to know in your preparations that in terms of working with senior management, the board plays an oversight and governance role. The board has to know when to lead, when to partner with senior management, and when to stay out of the way.”

Jones adds that it’s important to let the board members do most of talking and to “pace yourself in the interview process.” But she adds that a lot of the decision will come down to whether you have the right chemistry. “One of the guys, because I had so much energy, he commented on that and I thought that was the death of me,” she says. “I said, ‘Oh no, did I talk too much?’ You don’t want to be the one who seems naïve either so be measured and tempered in your conversations.”

All three of her board positions happened quickly — within a few months, although Jones says it could take up to a year for a decision, depending on several factors, including the size of the board.

Salary is usually based on a combination of cash and equity, Jones says, and can range anywhere from $75,000 to $250,000 cash, with equity ranging from $100,000 to a half million dollars, depending on the size of the company.

Ten years is the typical length of a board position, she adds. Sometimes a board will turn over because the members’ competencies don’t match what they need, and they find they need more digital or marketing skills, Jones says.

Why women IT leaders should serve on boards

Patricia Titus, chief privacy and information security officer for Markel, in Richmond, Va., serves on two external boards (NormShield Cybersecurity and the Girl Scouts of the Commonwealth of Virginia), and says it’s more advantageous to have a seat on outside boards because it shows you’re staying connected and growing your career.

Patricia Titus, chief privacy and information security officer, Markel

Patricia Titus, chief privacy and information security officer, Markel

“You have to know how to present yourself and market yourself because you’re allowing [a board] to use your personal brand — and you have to be careful what boards you get on because your brand could be damaged based on the board you’re on,’’ she says. “It’s very important for us to think before we leap when we look at these types of opportunities.”

There are so many different types of boards, and Titus says some of best advice she ever received was to ensure that whatever board you’re considering provides you with directors and officers liability (D&O) insurance. “A lot of companies won’t carry it and … I’d steer of those,’’ she says. Even the small startup she serves on offers it, she says.

Now, Titus is open to serving on a corporate board because she is in the “autumn of [my] career,” and as a CISO, “there isn’t a lot of ‘where do you go from here?’” she says.

Titus credits her global experience in security in both the private and public sectors and being a woman as differentiators. “People in my position have a huge amount of knowledge and perspective to bring to that boardroom,’’ she says. “But for some reason a CISO is not the first thought for a board seat — or a technical person.”

Toft cites four reasons why it makes sense to have women on boards. The first is diverse boards have better financial performance; it enhances innovation; it makes a company more competitive; and it is a candidate-driven market and having both a diverse board and leadership team helps attract and retain talent, especially millennials, she says.

If you have a diverse board, you’re going to have better market performance, claims Jones. “Otherwise, you have pale male stale boards that don’t represent society,’’ she says. “It’s not just about being attuned to shareholders, but employees, customers, the community, and women tend to have that affinity to care more.’’ You also have to have someone on the board who understands what the CIO is talking about, she adds, otherwise, “you’re potentially doomed.”

And like Beach, Toft says women in technology are a small group and “have to be brave” and put themselves out there. “I wear a bracelet today that says ‘fearless,’ and that’s the number one skill CEOs and boards seek,’’ she says.  

“The holy grail is women in technology,’’ agrees Zukis, “which is what I’ve got, so call me and I’ll make an introduction to those 100 women. … It takes a more disruptive mentality focus and we’re shaking. The tremors are starting.”

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