New Wave of Women Leading the Way: Continued Progress in America’s Board Rooms

New Wave of Women Leading the Way: Continued Progress in America’s Board Rooms

Emily Pera

As a woman in corporate America, I’ve been both personally and professionally invested in the question of female representation in board rooms. The level of dialogue on this important issue has never been higher. 

But has there been enough action taken? Where are we on the journey from awareness to diagnosis to formulation to action to a resolution?

Current research shows that, depending on the industry, company size and geographic location, we are somewhere between the first four steps. In other words, there is a high degree of variability, and certain companies should get credit for their deliberate actions to recruit women to their boards. According to an analysis done by Factset, the consumer services and utility industries are leading the way with a greater share of female directors, though this is still only 21.4% and 22% respectively.

There have been further examples of incremental progress: 

“For the first time, in 2017, more than half of new directors on the S&P 500 were women and/or people of color. Women were 36% of new directors. People of color, including both men and women, were 20%... In 2018, women were 40% of new directors.” 

- Catalyst 

But we must not confuse incremental progress for the endpoint of the change that is required. While positive momentum is occurring, women still make up only 24% of board members in the S&P 500. 

We can do better – and we will – because of the discernible benefit to companies with higher female representation on their boards.

Catalyst’s findings show that significant advantages accrue to the companies that do have female board directors. As their report notes, companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams experienced better financial performance on key metrics than companies with the lowest women’s representation. Return on equity was 35% higher and total return to shareholders was 34% higher, for the companies with the highest degree of female representation on their boards.

On a state-based initiative level, California is leading the way. In September 2018, the state became the first to introduce quotas requiring publicly traded companies to include women as board directors. While the quota system remains far from ideal, it can be a step to spur change – a waystation on the road to gender parity.

Ultimately, I would personally love to see a world where we don’t have to count the number of women around the table – where instead, we consider only the competencies and skills of board members, and where women are equally represented because every other stage in the development and recruitment process is equal. Getting to this point will require deliberate, collective action. Continued advocacy on the part of Women’s Fund of Rhode Island and other partner organizations, on both the state and national level, will be critical.


Emily is a strategist for the healthcare industry with her independent consultancy, Peradigms LLC. She has partnered with payers, providers, senior living & care, associations, and new market entrants. Her passion is improving the quality and experience of American healthcare. You can get in touch with her at