More women are serving on corporate and nonprofit boards, traditionally a role dominated by men, but some of the women serving in those roles locally say there’s more work to be done to increase diversity in boardrooms.
Nationwide efforts to increase the number of women and minorities in leadership roles have led to more diverse boardrooms across the country, but women are still underrepresented on corporate and non-profit boards. Local female leaders suggest the Rochester area is following the nationwide trend, and recently shared their experiences.
HCR Home Care CEO Louise Woerner, a Rochester native who has a long history of serving on corporate and nonprofit boards, said in her early days serving in the boardroom there weren’t many other women in the room.
“There were one or two,” Woerner said of the number of women. “There were not many in the beginning.”
In the early days “there was a little feeling of being a little more visible than you’d like to be,” Woerner said, noting as the only woman in the room sometimes people would drop the side conversations and turn their heads when she had something to say.
Though the number of women serving in boardrooms has risen significantly, females hold only about 20 percent of board seats for Fortune 500 companies, according to the Pew Research Center, up from less than 10 percent in 1995. Women are better represented on nonprofit boards, but the numbers are still underwhelming at slightly more than 40 percent.
Looking back 30 years to when she started Dixon Schwabl, CEO Lauren Dixon said she sought to serve on a nonprofit board and do some meaningful work. The United Way immediately came to mind, she said, but at that time the organization’s more than 130 board members were mostly white men.
“I always hoped and dreamed that things could change and they have, they really have,” Dixon said, pointing out that 40 percent of United Way board members are now women, and the Monroe Community College (MCC) Foundation Board she serves on is one-third women.
Roberts Wesleyan College President Deana Porterfield, who serves on several corporate and nonprofit boards, said there is an intentional effort to bring gender and ethnic diversity to the boardroom, but there still tend to be fewer women in the boardroom.
“I’m a believer that we all have gifts and strengths that we bring to the table no matter your gender,” Porterfield said. “But I am aware that most of the time I’m one of one, or one of two (women), sitting around that table.”
Woerner, who started her home health care business in 1978, said she was fortunate to be one of a small number of women with the necessary credentials—she has an MBA from the University of Chicago—to serve on the New York Federal Reserve when the organization was seeking a board member. She says that wouldn’t be the case anymore.
“When the Federal Reserve was looking for somebody with a market economy background there weren’t that many women,” Woerner said, noting that she became the first woman to serve on the board. “Today half the business school is women. If they were looking for somebody with a market economy education there would be hundreds of names of women that would pop up.”
Woerner, who has also served on the Atlantic Council of the United States and a variety of other boards, recalled a time when she was in the New York Federal Reserve boardroom, and a woman who was providing lunch to the group leaned in and told her it was wonderful to see a woman sitting at the table.
“It was encouraging to one of the women to see that somebody actually was sitting at the table,” she said. “It felt very good that somebody would say they were proud to see me sitting there.”
Dixon, who also serves on the local Chamber of Commerce, University of Rochester Medical Center, Thompson Health and other boards, said women have a more impactful voice today “by leaps and bounds” compared with 30 years ago.
With the number of women serving on corporate and nonprofit boards on the rise, the perspectives in the boardroom have changed drastically.
Dixon said the boards she serves on recognize that there’s more that must be done, noting it’s a discussion that takes place regularly.
“It’s important to get that diversity of thought,” Dixon said, adding that without diverse perspectives that represent the demographics served, organizations would not reach their potential for success. “All boards need more diversity and inclusion. Be it female, race, age—diversity is something that is key to an organization’s success.”
Christine Palmiere, first vice president and financial advisor at Sage Rutty, serves on the Monroe Community Hospital Auxiliary Board and as the board’s treasurer. Palmiere said the nonprofit board comprises a significant number of women, estimating the make-up is “probably 50/50.”
With women and men both solidly represented on the board, Palmiere said there are a variety of perspectives and the dialogue is productive. She said sharing different perspectives in a respectful atmosphere leads to “new and better ways to do things.”
“We have a lot of different opinions that come together and it creates a beautiful blend, and we find ways that we can all help,” she said.
Palmiere said that when she first entered the financial sector more than two decades ago, there were “four women to forty men,” but as more and more women entered the workforce and the industry, females also gained more positions in board rooms.
“It’s just a natural gravitation as more and more women enter the business,” she said. “The world has changed and not that many women are staying home anymore.”
Porterfield, who sits on the board at Rochester Regional Advisory Board for Excellus and Palmer Family of Companies, said she understands part of the reason she likely was chosen to serve on some of the boards was “to bring a different perspective” as a woman and help create a more diverse conversation.
Despite being the only woman in the room at times, Porterfield believes she has had an equal voice but sometimes feels a responsibility to represent the female point of view.
“When I speak, I need to speak in a way that is articulate and in a way that is engaging in the conversation, because I know that I am also representing my gender in those conversations,” Porterfield said.
Though it’s clear the number of women serving on boards has increased in recent decades, Porterfield said, there’s still room for growth both in the number of women serving and the roles in which they serve. Women, and sometimes men, are still often tagged for certain positions based on their gender, she said, pointing out financial committees are often made up of men and secretarial roles tend to be filled by females.
Dixon, who is chair of the United Way of Greater Rochester and co-chair of the organization’s Women’s Leadership Council, said she’s blessed to have the opportunity to work with a number of other strong, female leaders. Dixon pointed out that the executive directors of both the MCC Foundation and the United Way are women.
Women have made considerable strides in achieving equal status, Dixon said, but there’s still a need to forge a path for younger generations and increase opportunity for women in the future. Dixon said female leaders have a responsibility to encourage others and “do great work in the community.”
“We still have more work to do,” Dixon said. “I applaud what we’ve done so far and I’m encouraged by it, but there is still some work left to be done, be it equity in wages, equity in people serving on boards.”
Matthew Reitz is a Rochester-area freelance writer.