Corporate America's glass ceiling doesn't stop at the C-suite. Only 16.6 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a woman on their board of directors. Beth A. Stewart (MBA 1982) is uniquely qualified to change that. And she is changing it—one board at a time.
Stewart, currently on the boards of Carmax, Inc., and Avatar Holdings, was first named a director when she was 36. In the 20 years since then, she estimates she has participated as a member in more than 200 corporate board meetings. She was almost always the only woman in the room—a fact that hasn't changed much—and often the youngest person as well.
That didn't sit well with her for several reasons. While equality was one of them, improving companies was another. So two years ago she started Trewstar, with one goal in mind: getting experienced and accomplished women onto corporate boards.
"If you put women on corporate boards today, you are generally putting someone on the board who is younger and smarter, and has a specific set of skills not already on that board," she says.
"You could say that you could find men with all those same characteristics," she adds. "But with a woman you are also expanding the board's thought process and world outlook. Studies on this topic show that when three or more women are on a corporate board, the women perform better, but interestingly, so do the men."
Age is a real issue for boards of directors. The number of boards with an average age of 64 or older has risen from 14 percent a decade ago to 38 percent today, according to a study by the executive search firm Spencer Stuart. While age may bring wisdom, it often doesn't bring familiarity with things like digital marketing or other essential business technologies.
For Stewart, age also accounts for the fact there aren't more women directors. "Why do I think there aren't more? Because nobody looks for them. Because there's no demand. Because 65- or 70-year-old men on boards don't really have peers who are women."
Stewart believes another thing women bring to the boardroom is the experience they have gained by excelling in the predominantly male-run world of business.
"These women who make it through the corporate, investment banking, consulting, and even the legal gauntlet, and at 50 or 55, are ready and qualified to sit on a corporate board—they've gone through a lot," she says.
In addition to their business expertise, women also bring a very different set of emotional skills. Stewart points to studies that have found that women directors facilitate the discussion of difficult issues by forcing boards to confront the tough questions.
When she talks about her portfolio of board candidates, Stewart has the enthusiasm of a baseball fan at an All-Star game. "Qualified women run the gamut," she says. "I can tell you about a 37-year-old rocket scientist who is going to join a board. She is one of the most poised, mature people I've ever met. I can tell you about two- and three-star generals. I can tell you about women who have retired from marketing and technology and HR positions all across corporate America reporting to the CEO. You haven't heard of them, but they are outstanding senior-level business women and they will be great board members."
While most of her successes are quiet ones, Stewart isn't afraid to make some noise when it's called for.
When Facebook was preparing to go public in 2012, Stewart helped create a campaign that highlighted the lack of women on the social networking giant's board. Part of that campaign was a protest by a women's advocacy group at Facebook's offices in April of 2012. In June, the company named its first female director, the company's chief operating officer, HBS alumna Sheryl Sandberg (MBA 1995). Facebook has since also added Susan Desmond-Hellmann, chancellor at the University of California, San Francisco, to the nine-member board.
Stewart says she is frequently asked by women what they can do to serve on a board. She always tells them the same thing: "If they're excellent at what they do, they won't have to call me. We will find them."