Photos of Deloitte's partners, then and now.

Credit: WGBH News

Getting On Board: For Female Leaders, It’s No Easy Task

April 11, 2017

Click on the audio player above to hear the radio version of this story.

To get a sense of how much has changed at Deloitte's Boston offices, consider a black a white photo the boss keeps in her office. 

“This picture was taken in 1990,” explains Susan Esper. It’s the year she started at Deloitte, and the photo shows the firm’s Financial Services partners from that year, all of them men. Fast forward a quarter century and the picture has changed — now, about a third of that group of partners in that same practice are women, and Esper is among them

She is part of a generation of women who have climbed the corporate ranks. Women hold more than half of management jobs, but are barely represented in the place that matters most: corporate boardrooms. Only about 20 percent of top corporate board seats are filled by women nationally and here at home.

“The top 100 public companies in Massachusetts have 19 percent of their board seats filled by women,” said Esper. “We still have 17 of those companies that have no women, not one, on their board.”

Esper is spearheading an effort she hopes will reduce that gender gap. It’s a three-day program called Board Ready Women designed to help senior female executives in Boston position themselves for board openings.

“It’s an unbelievable learning opportunity,” said Christina Luconi, a veteran of five startup companies. “This has really piqued my interest in helping companies in a different way rather than just being on the ground and building them myself.”

Esper says there’s no shortage of women with the qualifications to serve on corporate boards, but she says they need to make their interest known.

“It’s a little unfair to put it on the women, but it is part of what happens,” she said. “If you’re not knocking and asking and being a little proactive, you may not get thought of.” 

Business consultant Patti Fletcher has a different take. She says it’s not women who need to change their approach.

“We have to stop trying to fix women and instead look at the system that got us here in the first place,” said Fletcher. “What we really need to do is focus on getting these women highly networked.”

Fletcher says women with the skills and experience required for corporate boards need people in power, usually men, to advocate on their behalf. Real change, she says, will only happen when putting women on boards becomes a priority. She suggests an incentive: money.

“How about that executive search firm is also held accountable for hiring in women candidates, and that board is then rewarded financially for appointing female candidates?" Fletcher said. "It’s a start.”

Research, some of it more than a decade old, indicates there’s already an incentive for corporate boards to recruit women: more diverse boards produce better financial results.  

“I’m the mother of two daughters." Esper said. "When my daughter was born in 1997, if you had asked me if we would still be talking about these issues in 20 years, I would have said ‘Oh, we’ll be over this by then’. I realize now, we’re still talking about it.”

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