In the quest for greater female participation on the boards of America's largest public companies, there are several obstacles to overcome. The typical director is a sitting or retired CEO, and there aren't many women who fit that profile. Board tenures are generally long, so turnover doesn't occur at a pace that would allow for quick changes in the composition. And for all the table-pounding about the increased transparency of the boardroom, director appointments still are often made behind closed doors, with few people realizing a seat has been vacated until the announcement comes that an open slot has just been filled.

Knowing all this, but still undeterred in her goal of eventually being involved in corporate agenda-setting at the board level, Wells Fargo's Caryl Athanasiu applied last year to be among the 15 inaugural fellows accepted to On the Board, a training program at George Washington University for would-be corporate directors.

Linda Rabbitt, a GW trustee and CEO of commercial builder Rand Construction, came up with the idea for On the Board out of frustration with the slow pace of women's progress in the boardroom, with female representation on boards stagnating in the last decade at about 16 percent for Fortune 500 companies. (The numbers are slightly better when you look at the Fortune 1000, where 17.5 percent of board members are women.)

Athanasiu learned about On the Board from a notice emailed by the International Women's Forum, which works with GW's School of Business on the initiative. The program entails three executive residencies in Washington, during long weekends spaced out over 10 months, where fellows get in-depth training in areas such as corporate strategy, finance, crisis management, ethical decision-making, leadership communications, risk assessment and regulatory compliance.

There are other board readiness programs around, most of them shorter and focused mainly on networking and resume-writing, says Susan Kulp, the GW associate professor of accounting who serves as academic director for On the Board. What makes this program stand out, she says, is its rigor. In addition to relying on GW's faculty, On the Board puts top-flight professors from other universities in front of the fellows to share their expertise on specific skills or case studies. And perhaps even more significant is the program's commitment to helping place the fellows on boards of big companies.

The inaugural class includes a senior vice president from Kraft Foods, the president and CEO of Amgen Mexico and a senior vice president of Talisman Energy, along with women from a range of other fields such as engineering and consulting. In addition to Athanasiu, fellows from the financial services sector include another of American Banker's Most Powerful Women in Banking and Finance, Barclays Vice Chairman Barbara Byrne.

In some ways, Kulp says, the most exciting aspect of On the Board is simply the opportunity to put this diverse group of accomplished women in a room together so they can learn from one another.

"You have someone like Barbara [Byrne] sitting in the room and you're talking about auditing—she's been in those boardroom discussions. Or you have Caryl [Athanasiu], who's so ingrained in risk management and internal controls and can share her perspective," Kulp says. "They're such an interactive group; they do rely on each other and they do ask about their experiences."

Athanasiu, Wells' chief operational risk officer, isn't necessarily looking to land a board post as soon as the program concludes in November. She says her day job is plenty demanding, as operational risk is an area that only seems to be gaining in importance to banks and their regulators, and she finds the work fulfilling.

But she sees herself eventually sitting in a boardroom somewhere, in any number of industry sectors, applying her technical skills, asking tough questions and being unafraid to exert her independence.

"I really like complex problems, and I want to be one of the people who make a difference at that level," she says. "It's not lost on me, the kind of leadership and influence we have here at Wells Fargo as one of the largest financial services companies. And large corporations aren't going to go away anytime soon."

She says companies that diversify their boards along gender or other lines will not just be giving opportunities to underrepresented groups, but fostering diversity of thought—which studies have tied to more careful risk-taking and better performance.

On the Board is already preparing for its next class of fellows. (Applications for the 2014 program will be accepted through Oct. 23.) But it will take a long time to assess whether On the Board has cracked the code on getting more women on corporate boards.

"It's a hard program to judge the success of, given that getting a board seat can be a two-year process," Kulp acknowledges. Compared with placement of fresh college graduates or newly minted MBAs, where the outcome is more of a binary event, there's no easy metric to monitor.

But Deedee Corradini, president of the International Women's Forum, is keeping one particular statistic in mind. Since the 1930s, when Coca-Cola became the first major U.S. company to appoint a female director (not counting Post Cereal, where Marjorie Merriweather Post joined the board nearly a century ago after inheriting the company from her father), the number of women added to corporate boards has averaged just 16 per year.

"When we place all 15 fellows on corporate boards," Corradini said when the formation of the On the Board program was announced, "we will nearly double the advances made yearly for the last 81 years."

 

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