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Men Named John, Robert, William Or James Outnumber Women On Corporate Boards

business board room
Flickr Photo/Eric Dan (CC-BY-NC-ND)
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More men named John, Robert, William or James run the boards of America’s largest companies than women do.

And in the Pacific Northwest, the numbers are worse than the national average.

Colleen Brown, board chair of American Apparel, wants to change that. Brown says she realized how few women sit on boards when she was at a conference in New York a few years ago. She looked around and saw few women – and no other women from the Pacific Northwest. When she came home, she crunched the numbers to find out how many women do sit on boards.

“We thought because we're so progressive up here in the Pacific Northwest we were certain that we would come out looking just wonderful,” Brown says.

The Pacific Northwest was behind by nearly two percentage points – with 14.5 percent of women serving on the boards of public company boards. The industry norm is 16.5 percent. 

Those figures have improved in the last year or so; now women make up 15.8 percent of executive boards in the Northwest.

Brown has heard three main reasons for having so few women on boards. Those in charge might say there aren’t enough qualified women around to serve on boards. Or if there are women out there, they don’t know them.

“The third comment is, ‘I know there are lists, but we don’t like to use lists,’” Brown says.

Brown says other organizations – like the Thirty Percent Coalition – aim to push boards to reach 30 percent female representation by 2016. 

In the Seattle area, Brown points to Blake Nordstrom of Nordstrom and Brad Tilden of the Alaska Air Group as leaders. Women make up 50 percent of Alaska’s board.

(Among other major local companies, Boeing has one woman on its board; Amazon has three; Microsoft has two. Boards typically include about 10 people.)

Ernst & Young's global organization published a study showing that there are fewer women on corporate boards than there are men named John, Robert, William or James. The New York Times did an analysis that found the numbers far worse for CEOs of a major companies. There were fewer women in those positions than there were men named John -- or David, for that matter. 

“I think my greatest disappointment is my greatest surprise – that it’s just not a priority to a lot of boards,” Brown says.

“Now for many boards it is a priority, and I am thrilled to see the statistics coming out now that boards that have more women on them have higher performing companies,” she says.

“I'd like to suggest potentially that's because those companies are progressive in the first place. But I do believe that it matters.”