Op-Ed: A Case for Gender Parity on Transportation Industry Boards

In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s take a moment to look back at the history of women’s board service in the US, before we look forward. According to a study conducted by Stanford University, the average publicly-traded company elected its first female director in 1985. In the transportation sector, the first female director to serve on a board of a publicly-traded company was Catherine Cleary in 1972 of General Motors Corporation. Catherine was a pioneer that had extensive experience in banking industry and served as Assistant Treasury Secretary in the Eisenhower administration. Later, in 1976, Marian Heiskell, a philanthropist and conservationist, was elected as a director of the Ford Motor Company.

The essence of good governance is representation of the best interests of the community or enterprise. Appropriate board representation aligns with the diversity of the constituency. In the transportation public sector, the user population represented is made up of 50% women and yet women continue to be under-represented on public boards. Currently, women hold only about 20% of board seats at Fortune 500 companies. This is a subject that has been discussed often but change is too slow.

According to a January 2017 Public Transportation demographic survey by the American Public Transit Association (APTA), women make over 55% of trips on our public transportation systems. Women also determine the majority of purchasing decisions at a micro level and yet, due to cultural biases and other factors which result in their under-representation on boards, have little influence on macro level policies that govern choices and consider the unique needs and perspectives of half of the population. Public boards and commissions establish policy, as well as influence social, economic, and political outcomes. Equitable solutions and positive socio-economic results cannot be optimized without appropriate representation.

With the rapidly changing societal and cultural norms, nearly half of the current U.S. workforce is women and 60% of college graduates are women. While the workforce percentages lag somewhat for women in the transportation sector, there is no lack of talented, well-educated women that can serve as directors on boards. Further, the positive affect on prosperity of gender-diverse boards has been made evident in recent studies by McKinsey and Company. Equitable board composition practices that focus on appropriate representation, as well as, recruiting the best talent available will ultimately result in gender parity on boards. This issue needs the attention of Board nomination committees in all areas of our industry.

A number of tools and methodologies can be used to create policies to accelerate the progression toward gender parity on boards. As presented in the approach to greater parity that is described below, a combination of active attention to equitable policies in filling board seats combined with mentoring and leadership development training will ensure that gender parity will be achieved with qualified female candidates whom will ultimately serve as successful directors on industry boards.

Attrition rates on publicly-traded boards of the S&P 500 companies are about 7.5%. Given this, even if 50% of vacated seats were filled with women, the change in overall percentage of women on boards would continue to progress slowly. Farient’s board briefings cite that the number of women on public boards is increasing primarily due to adding board seats rather than using vacated seats to increase diversity. A combination of adding board seats and implementing a policy of filling every other seat with a woman will help achieve parity faster.

This strategy coupled with succession planning and governance training will help to prepare women for board service. Exposure to board meetings through observation and attendance, mentoring programs, and presentation of board reports will be helpful for preparation for board service.

Women interested in board service need to take a proactive approach to seeking out positions, expressing interest through networks, getting the appropriate training in governance and industry best practices, strategic planning, oversight and finance. Participation in organizations that support governance best practices and support professional development is helpful. Board placement services are helpful in matching specific areas of expertise with the board recruitment and composition needs. Seeking out a mentor that serves on a board can also be effective in understanding options, opportunities, and areas of focus.

Associations like WTS International provide women education, networking opportunities, and support from peers, colleagues, and other professionals throughout the transportation industry. Leadership, governance, and board service opportunities are provided through involvement in non-profit organizations. These professional development experiences might not be available through traditional career advancement and therefore, provide effective alternative pathways to prepare for board service. These organizations also serve as resources for Board nominations committees to identify qualified candidates for industry boards.

In honor of Women’s History Month and the many benefits that women’s perspective, insight, contributions bring to transportation industry leadership, this is our call to action to propel our industry toward a better future of equity and gender parity on boards.

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