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GAO: It may take decades for boardroom gender parity

While the number of women on corporate boards has recently increased, closing the boardroom gender gap may take decades, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

Even if equal proportions of women and men joined U.S. boards each year, the GAO estimates that it may take more than 40 years for women's representation on boards to be on par with that of men's.

Board of Directors
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Women made up about 16 percent of board seats in the Standard & Poor's 1500 Index in 2014, up from 8 percent in 1997, based on the report. However, the GAO found that there are still major factors inhibiting greater gender diversity such as boards not prioritizing the recruitment of diverse candidates, few women in the traditional pipeline and low turnover of board seats.

"I think it is admirable and good that the GAO conducts this study, but there is nothing really new in it," said Jan Babiak, executive coach and independent director on several corporate boards. "New executives are chosen by the board members' personal networks. And if birds of a feather flock together, women will most likely not be included on the list."

While countries such as Germany require that some of the biggest public companies fill 30 percent of supervisory seats with women, the Securities and Exchange Commission does not have this type of regulation currently in place.

The GAO did not provide recommendations in its report, but the majority of stakeholders — CEOs, board directors, and public pension fund investors — interviewed supported improving federal disclosure requirements on leadership diversity to encourage greater gender equality on boards.

"Institutional investors driving this push for disclosure is a step in the right direction," said Kate Bensen, president and CEO of The Chicago Network, an organization for professional women in Chicago. "I think that making sure women who are 'board ready' become 'board eligible' is also a way to alleviate the gender gap problem. It is necessary that search firms have women in their pipeline who are ready to fulfill those roles."

Although voluntary strategies for increasing gender diversity on corporate boards were favored by the stakeholders interviewed by the GAO, quotas were not supported. Most stakeholders believed that quotas could force directors to appoint individuals who are not the best fit for the board or create a perception that women did not earn their board seat because of their skills.

Still, many argue that there are more than enough qualified women to fill the C-suite.

"This is not a supply issue. It is a demand issue," Babiak said. "I literally know thousands of qualified women who have board experience. As people look at creating a diverse board, they should be looking at the individual's broader skill set, not just their CEO or CFO title. If everyone is alike, then you have a lot of redundancy."