Program Aims to Prepare Women for Board Service

Photograph by Imagemore Co./Getty Images

Increasing the representation of women on corporate boards has been a hot topic in the management education world of late, with a leading business school women’s advocacy group recently asking top U.S. B-schools to help them create a list of board-ready women. George Washington University’s School of Business is taking a different approach to the same issue. Rather than compiling a list, the school is creating a new executive education offering that will handpick 15 to 20 women a year to serve as fellows in a new program called On Board: Advancing Women’s Corporate Board Leadership.

The business school will be teaming up with the International Women’s Forum (IWF) to deliver the fellowship program, and both parties have a bold goal: to ensure all On Board’s fellows are placed on corporate boards by the end of the program. The number of women on corporate boards in the U.S. has not budged much beyond 15 or 16 percent in recent years, and George Washington’s business school hopes to help make some headway on this issue, says Doug Guthrie, the school’s dean.

“We want to get 100 percent placement for all these people who come through the program and then do it again and again and again,” says Guthrie. “The numbers about inequality on corporate boards are daunting enough that we don’t kid ourselves into thinking we can fix it ourselves, but we think we have the right model and believe we can make an impact.”

The fellowship is the brainchild of Linda Rabbitt, chief executive officer and founder of Rand Construction, who provided GW with a “substantial gift” to provide women with fellowships, says Guthrie, adding that he could not disclose the dollar amount of the gift. Rabbitt wanted to design a program that she felt would have been useful to her when she was a younger woman trying to climb the corporate ladder. “She felt like she was often on her own going through that hierarchy,” Guthrie says.

On Board, which will launch in February 2013, will be joining a host of other programs at universities that seek to help advance women who want to move into roles on corporate boards, including initiatives at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Harvard Business School, Guthrie says.

Most business schools that offer these opportunities, however, typically run them through their executive education programs and don’t usually have a partner to help them deliver curriculum and programming, Guthrie says. GW’s program is unique, he says, because of its affiliation with the IWF, a global nonprofit leadership association that advances women’s careers.

The organization is helping GW design the program and will help the school recruit fellowship candidates through the group’s membership pool of 5,000 women leaders in 26 countries, and other sources, says IWF CEO Lillie Richardella. The group will be looking for women from a broad swath of the business world who have demonstrated leadership achievement in their jobs and have the potential to rise to a board-level role, Richardella says.

“Personally, I’d like to see corporate boards broaden their understanding of who makes a good board candidate,” Richardella says in an e-mail. “For almost 22 years, I’ve been receiving the same phone call. A recruiter is looking for a corporate woman, in manufacturing, with line authority, who is between 45 and 50. Really? That’s it? Business isn’t changing? They are missing where women are—in small business, in enterprise, competing in a tough marketplace, successfully.”

IWF will also be providing GW with adjunct faculty members for the program, as well as women from their organization’s membership pool who can serve as mentors, coaches, and advocates for the class of fellows, Richardella says.

Fellows selected for the program will be invited to the GW campus for several three- to four-day residencies during the course of 12 months. Topics covered in classes will include leadership, influence on corporate boards, and corporate social responsibility. In addition, faculty will equip them with specialized finance skills that will allow them to serve on the auditing committees of corporate boards, knowledge that Guthrie says he hopes will set them apart from other board candidates.

“We believe if we set people up with the right skills, that will make them extra attractive,” he says. “We are hoping the extra nudge we give them will push these women into a position where they can have major influence and really move the needle on this issue.”

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