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Study finds ranks of female corporate board members increasing

Within five years, so many qualified women will be sitting on corporate boards that nobody will be paying any attention to the phenomenon. That is the prediction of one of the women directors interviewed during a study reported in The Wharton Magazine, published by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Analyzing data from 441 of the largest US corporations, researchers at the University of Texas found that the ranks of female directors grew by 50 percent from 1977 to 1979, when they made up 3 percent of major directorships, according to the report.

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Despite this progress, the authors caution that corporations will have to make much more progress, and demonstrate considerably better faith, to convince the public of their willingness to seek out qualified candidates for board positions without discrimination.

For example, although some corporations had two or three women directors, more than 88 percent had only one, and the women directors had better qualifications and experience in their chosen fields than did similarly placed male directors.

Further, while service companies such as life insurance, banking, and retailing had the greatest female representation, "smokestack" industries such as steel and mining had the smallest number of women directors, according to investigators at the Center for Research in Business and Social Policy at the University of Texas.

The majority of the women were outside or independent directors. More than 55 percent had academic or other nonbusiness backgrounds, although 23 percent were current or former business executives or bankers.

In the process of bringing women on their boards, many corporations revamped their board committee structures and established new committees, particularly public-policy and social-responsibility committees. Although this resulted in an overrepresentation on the new committees, the authors point out that the factors leading a corporation to recruit a woman often serve as a catalyst for more comprehensive reform of the board structure itself.

The appointment of women directors, the authors conclude, was not mere "tokenism," but part of a continuing effort on the part of the progressive corp orations to respond to concerns of society.

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