Women on Boards: A Roadmap to Success in Corporate Governance

“There is a growing thirst for qualified women to join various boards of directors,” says Ellen Zane. "You just have to know how to find these opportunities and how to position yourself at the right point in your career in order to be sure you are gaining the right experience to ultimately be a valuable addition."

If you’re a woman executive with career aspirations that include getting a seat on a corporate board in the healthcare sector, you’re certainly not alone. Many women desire to hold governance positions for corporations, nonprofits, or public organizations operating in the healthcare space. Yet the road to reach such a destination can be a very winding one, especially for women. As such, it’s important to map out your journey strategically so you won’t get lost along the way, according to Ellen Zane, a nationally renowned healthcare leader who retired in 2011 from her role as President and Chief Executive Officer of Tufts Medical Center and the Floating Hospital for Children.

Gender Differences on Boards of Directors

To understand how best to navigate your way to secure that ideal governance position (or positions), you can’t discount the realities that historically have existed for women in the workplace. A fact sheet published by the American Center for Progress, titled “The Women’s Leadership Gap,” reveals that women fill 52 percent of the professional jobs in the United States today, yet they make up only 16.9 percent of Fortune 500 board seats. This means that the climb to get to the top can be particularly steep for women.

The good news, though, is that the odds are beginning to shift in the right direction. In fact, Institutional Shareholder Services, Inc. (ISS), a worldwide provider of corporate governance evaluation and solutions, has found that over the past few years, the proportion of women on corporate boards in this country and abroad is growing. And while countries (e.g. Germany) with a mandatory quota seem to be the ones with the strongest female representation, even those without quotas are also beginning to move in the right direction, albeit more slowly.

“There is a growing thirst for qualified women to join various boards of directors,” Zane says. You just have to know how to find these opportunities and how to position yourself at the right point in your career in order to be sure you are gaining the right experience to ultimately be a valuable addition.

Key Steps for Women to Secure Board of Directors Positions

So, you may wonder exactly how women can find—and secure—such coveted positions. Zane generously draws on her own personal experiences to provide the following blueprint that can be adapted to help other women to prepare themselves for leadership roles on healthcare boards.

  1. First, you need to think about the type of jobs you take throughout your career and where they may lead. In Zane’s case, she says she accepted the CEO role for Tufts Medical Center back in 2004, during a particularly tumultuous period following the organization’s failed merger with another health system in Rhode Island. This made her the first non-physician and first female CEO for Tufts Medical Center in its two centuries of existence. She also points out, “Throughout my career, especially when I started to attain CEO positions, I accepted opportunities fraught with challenges that I don’t think many men would have taken,” she says. “But this just made me work harder and helped me to become a better leader.” In fact, these positions ultimately helped her become a leader who, now in her ‘encore career,’ is frequently approached with desirable board invitations.
  2. Learn all you can about the different types of boards that exist and their governance, regulations, and composition, to determine what scenarios most interest you and fit best with your expertise. For instance, boards of corporate public companies tend to be small (generally made up of 7 to 10 directors) and challenging to secure. They often seek retired leaders who have had an extremely successful career; for-profit (including private equity and venture-backed firms) board seats are also somewhat limited, but they may be attractive for women executives mid-career who have an accomplished track record; nonprofit and public-sector boards usually have more members (while there is no specific number, one university board Zane sits on has 34 members) and this can be accessible for mid-career women, but nonprofit board seats typically come with some financial commitments, since members are usually expected to contribute to the organization as part of a philanthropic obligation.
  3. Understand that there is a major difference between holding a governance role for an organization and managing the day-to-day operations. In fact, Zane points out that not recognizing the nuances between guiding the direction of the business and trying to get too involved in all of the details of the operations is a big mistake that many novice board members make. That’s why she says that it can be invaluable to make an effort on your way up to have career experiences where you report to a board, or serve on a board, in order to gain a healthy and realistic view of what falls under the auspices of the board’s purview and what does not. Zane also suggests getting as much experience and accountability as early in your career as you can through a variety of channels, including holding roles in your local government, social clubs, and religious institutions.
  4. Embrace change. The United States healthcare industry today is experiencing dramatic changes and you can’t be afraid of them, Zane says. “Healthcare organizations need leaders who can help support them through the change.” Finding new and creative ways to adapt to the latest healthcare imperatives while providing high-quality care in the most patient-centered and cost-efficient way requires comfort with change.
  5. Maximize your knowledge about finance. “You don’t need a degree in finance, but you do need to know how to read a profit-and-loss statement and a balance sheet” and to be able to understand international trade issues, Zane says.
  6. Recognize the scope of the commitment. “There are significant time commitments as well as legal and regulatory responsibilities that go along with corporate governance positions,” she says. “Corporate boards usually have four meetings a year, plus phone calls and lots of reading and homework,” she adds, so you need to be able to accommodate these responsibilities within your schedule.
  7. Be very honest with yourself and ask yourself what added value you bring. Being smart, holding multiple degrees, and having the desire to serve are simply not enough. Your expertise, skill set, and ability to work collaboratively with your peer directors and with management are paramount.
  8. Whom you know does matter when it comes to securing corporate board seats. In fact, networking can lead to some of the most valuable opportunities. “The board positions I enjoy the most are those where I knew someone on the board first,” Zane says. She also periodically gets invitations for boards from healthcare recruiting firms that hear about her through colleagues and others who know of her reputation. Her takeaway is that most board opportunities must find you; you don’t usually apply for them yourself, so making the right contacts throughout your career is really essential.

The Benefits Women Bring to Corporate Governance

With so much resting on women’s shoulders when it comes to securing a corporate leadership position, you may wonder what real benefits you can expect in return for your efforts. The payoffs can include a dynamic environment where you can share your knowledge and expertise with your peers, and an unparalleled opportunity to make a significant contribution to something bigger. “It is intellectually stimulating and challenging,” Zane says. In addition, financial compensation is operative in the case of for-profit corporations (or the expectation for you to donate your money to an important cause in the case of a nonprofit board.) It is well documented that women on boards have a significant impact on the companies they help govern and that their participation can truly make a difference.

Growing opportunities for women on boards exist today.

Catalyst, an independent nonprofit membership organization that supports women’s efforts in business, released a report called “The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards” that finds that Fortune 500 companies that have a higher proportion of women holding seats on their boards of directors have greater financial success than their counterparts. The report also reveals that companies with three or more women on their boards of directors have better overall performance than boards with fewer females represented.

The reasons for the benefits are many, but they do seem to be strongly rooted in some common gender traits. “Although these are all generalizations, women tend to be collaborative and good listeners, and are less vested in their personal goals and more vested for the greater good [overall],” Zane says. She adds that it would be inappropriate to say that some men don’t bring the same strengths to the table, but in general, women do seem to really maximize their impact when they have a board seat, making them very valuable members.


Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Women on Boards: Getting On and Adding Value an On-Site program designed to Increase Representation of Women in Healthcare and Related Industry Boards