A headhunter on a mission

Janice Reals Ellig, the co-chief executive of Chadick Ellig, the New York City-based executive search firm, has made it her life’s work to get more women on corporate boards.

As a headhunter, she focuses her practice on the recruitment of diverse senior-level executives. She is also the president of the Women’s Forum in New York, an invitation-only group of high-ranking professional women that aims to advance female leadership.

“This is really part of my DNA,” she told me recently. “If I’ve accomplished anything in my life, it will have been to change the landscape of corporate boards.”

We spoke only days after the publication of a report, The State of Women Business Leaders in New York State, which showed a slight upward trajectory in the inclusion of women in key executive position at top New York companies. (True, New York is but one state, but in terms of US corporate boards, it is an important one.)

According to the report, which was published by the Women’s Executive Circle of New York in partnership with the Columbia Business School, women hold 15.9 per cent of all board director and executive officer positions in the state’s 100 biggest public companies. This is an increase from 15.5 per cent in 2008 and from 14.7 per cent in 2006. The study showed that 32 of the 100 companies have boards and executive suites in which at least 20 per cent of positions are held by women. Meanwhile, 15 of the 100 companies have no women serving on the board of directors or as executive officers.

According to the numbers, much more work needs to be done. First, says Ellig, nominating committees and board chairman need to work harder at projecting an air of inclusiveness towards women. “The tone has to be set at the top,” she says.

Second, boards must broaden their pool of possible candidates. “We have to get away from the notion that only someone with a CEO title is a viable candidate for [board membership],” she says. “We can still look in the C-suite, and we don’t need to compromise on quality. We should look at entrepreneurs, or someone who has great international experience. Evaluate the needs of the company and then figure out the best possible nominees. The pipeline is there; it’s bulging and it just needs to be tapped.”

Third, Ellig says that external parties need to press the issue. She points out that some institutional investors, including PAX World Funds, have said they will not invest in companies with all-male boards.

Regulators ought to play a bigger role too. She notes that the SEC has now requires listed companies to disclose their policy, if one exists, regarding diversity in the selection of board members. Ellig says the SEC ought to go a step further by issuing a formal requirement for firms to create a board diversity policy. She says the SEC should also require that firms provide regular updates about steps being taken towards achieving diversity goals.

Lastly, Ellig says that women who are on boards need to become proponents of other highly qualified women. “I am cautiously optimistic. But we need to put the pedal to the metal.”

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