European companies may be soon be looking for hundreds of female directors to fill quotas, prompting American executives to send their resumes across the Atlantic.
At least ten European countries, including Norway, France and Spain, have approved quotas or corporate-governance codes for women representation on boards, or are considering them. That may require more than 1,000 new female directors in the next three to five years, based on a 2010 report covering 334 companies in 17 countries by executive recruiting firm Russell Reynolds Associates.
U.S. women executives said they are eager to take their experience overseas, where they face challenges including the language barrier and resistance to outsiders. Doreen Wright, who retired as Campbell Soup Co. chief information officer in 2008, is part of a growing number of Baby Boomers transitioning from full-time executives to professional directors. They are willing to take on additional work, she said.
“I feel like what is happening in Europe is important, and I want to be part of it,” said Wright, 54, who parlayed a degree in German literature into a 29-year corporate career that started at Merrill Lynch and also ran through Bankers Trust Co., American Express Co., Prudential Insurance and Nabisco.
A director for U.S. companies Crocs Inc. and Dean Foods Co., Wright said she studied in Munich and some of her roles included European and South American operations.
Wright is among about a hundred hand-raisers who responded to corporate recruiter Spencer Stuart after the firm reached out to Standard & Poor’s 500 female directors to help European companies find candidates to meet the quotas, said Julie Daum, co-leader of Spencer Stuart’s North American board and CEO recruitment efforts in New York.
Norway led European nations in 2003 in legislating that at least 40 percent of corporate board seats be filled by women about four years later. Spain and France were among the countries that followed with their own quotas.
The 2010 Russell Reynolds report for the European Professional Women’s Network found that among 4,875 directors at 334 companies in Europe, 12 percent, or 571, were women. Getting to 40 percent would mean more than 1,300 additional female directors.
“Unless you have some of the same women serving on many, many boards, the pool of candidates may not be as robust as you need it to hit those numbers” from existing European executives, Daum said in an interview.
The response from the U.S. women directors was “huge, within hours,” Daum said. Spencer Stuart used the names to assist searches for directors in the U.K., Germany and France, Daum said. The search firm also expects to see interest from the Netherlands, Spain and Italy, she said.
Some European boards conduct meetings in English. Others require native speakers, which can determine eligibility, said Wendy Lane, a former Tyco International Ltd. director and current board member for two companies based in Europe in addition to Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings in the U.S.
Lane, 60, who was both a mathematics and French major in college, said she didn’t pursue a directorship this year for a French company specifically because she wasn’t comfortable enough with the language anymore to conduct business.
The eight-hour flight across the Atlantic Ocean requires women with flexible schedules, Lane said. She has about eight board meetings a year for Helsinki-based paper and forest product company UPM-Kymmene Oyj and four or five trips to Dublin for meetings at insurance company Willis Group Holdings Plc.
Women in Their 50s
There is a shortage of European women executives in their 50s, which Lane says is the “sweet spot” for directors, and particularly women with operating experience.
“I’m generally not for putting diversity as a number one criteria, but on the other hand it does not seem to be happening naturally, so maybe it has to be forced with a timeline, which I think is very unfortunate,” Lane said.
The quota in Europe as well as voluntary efforts to increase women directors in the U.S. and add women and foreign directors for companies based in Asia is creating demand for “global-citizen” board members around the world, said Dona E. Roche-Tarry, managing partner for recruiter CTPartners in London.
“There is a big microscope on this across Europe and in the next three to five years we have to meet many quotas,” said Roche-Tarry, who has placed two American women on European boards in the last year among five such searches. “The question is: Where do you find all these people?”
Resistance to Outsiders
The challenge is made more difficult by European companies’ resistance to candidates outside of a traditional background who are often selected based on existing relationships, said Marina Eloy-Jacquillat, 64, a director at French polling company Ipsos SA and also Paris co-chair for Women Corporate Directors, which advocates for women in the boardroom.
“I’m for quotas to get things started because it kicks people in the ass to move it along,” said Eloy-Jacquillat, who is French and a former human resource executive for ING Groep NV in Amsterdam and JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York, London and Paris. “We’ll never get to 40 percent in five years.”
Wright, who lives in New York, said her peers will be a necessary resource for Europe as the pressure grows to meet the requirements. She’s considering adding another U.S. board membership to replace Citadel Broadcasting Corp., which was acquired, and wants to find a European assignment as well.
“The prospect of being able to contribute is really attractive,” she said of service in Europe. “I represent a growing number of women in business. We worked hard on 15-hour-a-day jobs with long commutes. We raised families. I retired at 51 from full-time corporate life. Now I have the capacity for board work.”