Tennessee’s corporate boards are showing slow growth in gender diversity levels, although rankings are still among the lowest in the nation, according to the latest findings of an annual study.
Expert opinions vary on how strongly the statistics reflect corporate vitality in Tennessee on a broader scale.
The fifth annual Women in Corporate Leadership study, conducted by The College of Business at Lipscomb University in Nashville and sponsored by the Nashville-based CABLE organization, showed that 25 (40.3 percent) of Tennessee’s 62 publicly traded companies lacked female board members in 2011, compared to 29 (44.6 percent) in 2010.
In addition, 15 companies had two or more women directors in 2011, a 50 percent increase from the prior year’s 10 companies. Memphis-based companies in that group were FedEx Corp., First Horizon National Corp and Buckeye Technologies Inc. (purchased by Georgia-Pacific in August).
Other local companies with at least one female board member in 2011 were AutoZone Inc., Fred’s Inc., International Paper Co., Pinnacle Airlines Corp. (moved to Minnesota in May), Thomas & Betts Corp. (since purchased by ABB Ltd.) and Wright Medical Group.
Despite the progress, Tennessee remains in the bottom quartile for women in leadership compared to other states, said Susan Allen Huggins, executive director of CABLE. Current statistics also show disproportions in leadership growth: In 2010, only three of 17 newly appointed independent board directors in Tennessee were women.
In an overview of the latest study results, CABLE cites national statistics showing an under-representation of women in corporate leadership throughout the country. Women held only 16.1 percent of board seats for U.S. Fortune 500 companies in 2011 and represented only 15.7 percent of Fortune 500 executives in 2008. These figures suggest that women still face barriers to executive leadership positions, according to CABLE.
John Gnuschke, professor of economics at University of Memphis and director of the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said that although the Women in Corporate Leadership study’s results are significant, the issue needs a deeper dive.
“Some of the results found in the study are important, such as the number of females in leadership roles and the gains that seem to be appearing over time,” Gnuschke said. “But additional work would be needed before any real conclusions could be generated from this study. For example, being a long-term board member is different than being one for a few years. Similarly, a board member that serves as chairman is different than just a board position. Being a vice president is different than being the president. And each company’s long-term commitment to having a racially, sexually and ethnically diverse board and leadership team is an important factor not thoroughly examined in this study. Many companies have explicit commitments to diversity and follow through by appointing and hiring diverse senior officials and board members. ”
CABLE’s report also references research indicating that companies with greater numbers of women in executive leadership positions perform better financially than companies with no women in those positions. Gnuschke believes more work needs to be done to firmly establish that causal relationship.
“This link seems intuitive but is more difficult to document than done in this report,” he said. “Sometimes high performance was in place before diversity occurred and not because of diversity. The two factors may be correlated but lack causality. No single board member or corporate official has that much impact on the operating performance of a business unless they are in the leadership positions of president or chairman.”
He said that while it’s important to look at how we can increase the number of women in public company boardrooms, the study offers no information on why that’s not happening more quickly in Tennessee.
“Every company operates in a way that will maximize profits, as charged by its shareholders. Discrimination is not an option,” he said. “No real reason exists for state-to-state variations in either corporate or board membership. It is not a bias that exists only in Tennessee or among publicly traded companies. Performance, not diversity, is the most important goal of any company.”
To read the complete study, visit nashvillecable.org/resources/Documents/2013-WOCB-White-Paper-CABLE-Study-YE-2011.pdf.
Founded in 1978, CABLE is Tennessee’s largest network of diverse professionals committed to connecting women and opportunity. It is an affiliate of InterOrganization Network (ION), a nationwide consortium of groups advocating for gender diversity on boards and top leadership teams of businesses across the country.