Women on Boards: Do Ambitious Goals Work?

The UK achieved a female leadership milestone after a 10-year campaign. Are there lessons for U.S. directors?

It was an ambitious goal when it was set in 2010: triple the percentage of female board directors on corporate boards by 2020. But it happened—just not in the United States.

The goal was set by an activist group known as the 30% Club. And as the new year dawned, more than three out of every ten directors—30.6%, to be exact—at the 250 largest publicly traded firms in the UK were women. But in the U.S., still less than a quarter of directors at the nation’s largest publicly held firms are female. A handful of companies still haven’t added any women on their boards.

To be sure, the business case for gender diversity at the top of leadership has been made several times over. According to Korn Ferry research, it often leads to better corporate decision-making, among other positive results. Yet in the 30% Club’s 14 chapter countries, only the UK has achieved the goal.

According to Shannon Hassler, a principal with Korn Ferry’s Advancing Women Worldwide group, some boards are simply still obstinate, concerned that diversifying could create undue tension in the boardroom. “It’s very similar myths and obstacles that women face in getting senior positions that they do senior appointments on a board,” she says.

What’s more, the private-equity industry—critical in so many businesses—may be hurting the effort as well. Experts say many private-equity-backed firms have all-male boards, and when they do need new directors they often look within their ranks. “PE is starting to get there, but it hasn’t historically accepted board diversity,” says Tierney Remick, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the vice-chair of the firm’s Board & CEO Services practice.

Still, experts say there are some key lessons directors in the US can take from the UK campaign. For one, just having a target matters. This target was widely backed by key government leaders, including the prime minister at the time. That kind of endorsement hasn’t happened on the same level in the US yet, although California did pass a law requiring firms based there to have at least one woman on their board.

In the US, one positive trend may be that a record number of first-time CEOs are being appointed. In general, boards recognize that they need to surround those new bosses with directors who can speak to marketing, human resources, technology, security, and other operational aspects of the business. That means that new board members don’t always have to be CEOs or CFOs, which are still mostly male roles.

At the same time, the women currently on boards have shown their peers the value of having a different perspective on the board. Awareness and acceptance are accelerating, Remick says: “In the last three to four years, we’ve had a much higher level of nomination of diverse candidates than in the prior ten years.”