Achieving Boardroom Diversity Without Marginalizing Anyone

Women and minorities continue to make progress in boardrooms, however, the pace has been slow and many top board seats are still going to men. Janice Ellig recently joined Hunt Scanlon Media to discuss the priorities that have to be balanced to achieve the best outcomes for good corporate governance.

October 12, 2023 – While women have come a long way, there is still a long way to go before we reach gender parity at the top levels of corporate America. As CEO of a women-owned search firm with the serious intention and track record of placing women and members of underrepresented groups in boardrooms and the C-suite (85 percent and 80 percent, respectively), Janice Ellig, CEO at Ellig Group, is deeply engaged with this particular struggle on a daily basis. “So, what I am about to say may sound like an oxymoron, but it is not,” she said. “While diversity must be considered a top priority in selecting corporate leadership, it should not be the sole criterion on which a selection is based. Rather, priorities have to be balanced to achieve the best and most equitable outcomes for good corporate governance.”

Ms. Ellig explains that pendulums often swing far to the right and far to the left, spending little time in the center. Following the murder of George Floyd, a pandemic, labor issues, the upcoming presidential election, inflation, and Russia’s ongoing war to control Ukraine, social unrest continues to be at a high point. “Companies are trying to balance these social-economic-political issues to protect employees, customers, communities, and investors while also doing the right thing to level the playing field with sound DEI best practices,” Ms. Ellig said. “Hiring diversity — and notably women, BIPOC, and other underrepresented groups — is currently on the minds of all CEOs, boards, chief human resources officers, and other leaders – as it should be.”

Crawling Toward Gender Parity

Ms. Ellig points to these numbers. In 1995, on the S&P 500, women held 10 percent of the board seats; in 2023, we are at 32 percent. Over the past 28 years, had we averaged just 1.5% a year, we would be at parity with 52 percent women on boards, not 32 percent. “However, progress has been at less than one percent, and that is the issue: hardly impressive, and the pace of change is far too slow,” she said.

In the early days, efforts toward gender parity were unfolding when, in 2003, Norway became the first country to pass legislation mandating a 40 percent quota for women on corporate boards by 2008. Then, in 2010, Dame Helena Morrissey and Lord Davies spearheaded the launch of the 30% Club in the U.K.

“As encouraged as I was at the time by these advances abroad, the fact remains that in the U.S., the rate of change over the past decade remains glacial, with the U.S. slipping to #13 of women on boards,” Ms. Ellig said. “We hear that some men feel marginalized and not able to secure a board seat.” However, the data shows that is not the reality: according to the 2023 S&P 500 New Director and Diversity Snapshot, the percentage of new board appointments – 54 percent, went to men.

The Right Kind of Parity

Progress for women and underrepresented groups is something almost everyone supports, at least in theory, according to Ms. Ellig. “Many, like me, would have preferred to see greater acceleration over the last decade rather than just over the past year, as we know change does not happen overnight,” she said. “However, the time has come, and I believe it is crucial that we continue to push for greater diversity while doing it in a manner that prudently moves the needle without excluding any qualified candidates, regardless of gender or background.”

As the head of the Ellig Group, Janice Ellig is dedicated to increasing the placement of women and diverse candidates on corporate boards and in C-suites by 2025. She joined the firm in 2000 and became co-CEO in its transition to Chadick Ellig in 2007. Ms. Ellig assumed sole ownership of the company as the Ellig Group in 2017. Prior to her career in executive search, she spent 20 years in corporate America at Pfizer, Citi and Ambac Financial Group, an IPO from Citibank, where she was responsible for marketing, human resources, and administration.

“Given Ellig Group’s diversity placement record, we welcome and are honored to work with progressive companies that want to change the landscape,” said Ms. Ellig. “That is our objective as well: diversity, equity, and inclusion at all levels, starting with the boardroom and C-suite. That said, we also recognize that even the companies with the best intentions can push so hard as to create unintended, counterproductive consequences.”

Related: Aligning Diversity and Talent in Board and C-Suite Recruitment

“Just as companies need to demand panels of highly qualified and diverse candidates, search consultants must have the courage to push back when they feel a more appropriate candidate is being overlooked, or a presentation excludes non-diverse candidates due to diversity concerns,” Ms. Ellig said. “Our ethical obligation is to ensure that we present exceptional and highly diverse candidates so that our clients have multiple choices, regardless of a candidate’s gender identity, race, national origin, and/or sexual orientation.”

Parity In, Parity Out

In 2015, Steve Odland, now CEO of the Conference Board, was a speaker at the Women’s Forum of New York Breakfast of Corporate Champions, an event Ms. Ellig founded in 2011 when she was the president of the Women’s Forum of New York, to honor and accelerate progress for Women on boards. Mr. Odland made a “clear and present danger” call to action to all CEOs and board directors: “The solution is simple […] select a woman for every other opening, and your board will reach parity by 2025.”

Ms. Ellig notes that Mr. Odland’s math was simple and correct. With approximately 5,000 board seats, 20 percent of which were held by women then, filling about 185 of the approximate 370 S&P annual openings for the next decade would get us beyond parity by 2025. “Or, to put it another way, achieving gender parity on boards is absolutely doable without shutting out men,” Ms. Ellig said. As Deanna Mulligan commented at the Women’s Forum of New York Breakfast of Corporate Champions: “This is not rocket science. If we can put a man on the moon, we ought to be able to put more women on boards.”

What Ms. Ellig has learned from her corporate career and from the past 20 years leading an executive search firm is that achieving a goal is a matter of making it a personal objective. “I believe — I know — that with focus and intentionality as our drivers, we can reach gender parity and equitable representation of underrepresented groups in the boardroom and throughout an organization without excluding any group,” she said. “It is not only the right thing to do for our employees, customers, communities, and investors; it is, and will continue to be, a business imperative, as well as good corporate governance. Board diversity can absolutely be achieved without marginalizing anyone.”

Related: Women Still Lag on Boards and in the Executive Suite

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; and Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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