By Diane E. Lewis, Globe Staff, 11/8/2001



Although women helped boost the state's economy over the past decade, they hold only 9 percent of the board seats at the state's 100 leading firms, according to a report released today by the Boston Club.


The organization of businesswomen and professionals meets this morning at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel to discuss the report, and to honor 20 companies that had two or more women on their boards of directors. However, the group noted that 48 companies have no women board members, while 32 others have only one.


The findings come two years after economists at Northeastern University reported college-educated women of all races in New England helped fuel a 45 percent increase in income among working couples between 1983 and 1997. Those gains were seen as proof that women had made significant strides in the labor force and were better educated, higher paid, held better jobs, and were working more hours than ever.


But even with those gains, the number of women on corporate boards continues to trail that for their male counterparts, who hold 91 percent of the board seats at the state's top 100 publicly traded firms, said the Boston Club. In all, women hold 78 of the 843 seats at the top companies. Minorities, by contrast, hold 5 percent of all board seats at the same firms, an earlier report revealed.


Board members have the power to hire and fire chief executives and are the lifeblood of an organization, influencing everything from compensation and corporate policy to foreign investments and institutional behavior. When the Boston Club examined the reasons behind the shortfall, it found that many Massachusetts firms are in high technology or biotech and have found it difficult to recruit significant numbers of high-ranking women in those fields for their boards. However, it also found that at companies where significant progress had been made, leaders who valued diversity were credited with making a difference.


John Hamil, chairman and chief executive of Sovereign Bank New England, took diversity into consideration when he developed a 16-member advisory board several months ago. Today, the board includes three women and two blacks. ''We wanted to have a board that was representative of many parts of the business community in a variety of ways,'' said Hamil. ''It's a good idea. It is good for business. Many of our customers are women and minorities. They bring a different perspective to the board.''


But Hamil and a handful of other chief executives are exceptions, said Juli Ann Reynolds, president of the Boston Club and managing director of Russell Reynolds Associates.


''We interviewed 22 chief executives and they all wanted to know how to do more,'' noted Reynolds. ''Some admitted that they were not doing enough and even said that, of all the issues on the table, [women on boards] does not necessarily reach the corner office.'' As a result, she said, women now hold just 9 percent of board seats at the state's top firms, versus the 11.7 percent who sit on the boards of Fortune500 companies nationwide.


Female representation in this state also lags behind that of the top 50 firms in Chicago, where women occupy 12 percent of all board seats, the study showed. Minority board representation is even rarer. In a report released last year, The Partnership, a nonprofit that helps local firms attract professionals of color, found that of the minority directors who sat on the top 100 firms listed in the Boston Business Journal, 2.2 percent were African-American, 2.1 percent were Asian-American, and 0.7 percent were Hispanic.


''This is clearly an area that needs to be focused on,'' said Benaree Wiley, director of The Partnership. ''We have to have people in positions of influence and decision-making if we are going to see any changes. Diversity makes companies more competitive and, more important, it can help the state attract - and keep - more talented people.''


Among the exceptions: Bright Horizons, which has four women directors, including Dr. Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot, an African-American who is a professor at Harvard University, and FleetBoston Financial, which has three women, including Marian L. Heard, the president and chief executive of the United Way of Massachusetts.


Diane E. Lewis can be reached by e-mail at This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 11/8/2001.


(c) Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.


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