Boardrooms should reflect market, former Planned Parenthood president says

Background: Faye Wattleton, co-head of Buffkin/Baker’s governance practice, joined the executive recruitment firm on Sept. 5. Wattleton previously served as managing director of Alvarez & Marsal. She’s held more than 20 board positions in both the public and private sectors, including Empire Blue Cross & Blue Shield, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Columbia University.

Before Alvarez & Marsal, Wattleton co-founded the Center for the Advancement of Women and led as president, conducting women-focused national research for public education and policy advocacy.

Why it matters: Wattleton made history as the first woman and first African American president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1978 where she served for more than 14 years. Under her leadership, PP grew to $500 million — making it the seventh largest nonprofit in the U.S.

Wattleton has received countless awards for her work, including induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. She received the prestigious Fries Prize for service to improving public health in 2004.

Her take: The current political climate and women’s movements like #MeToo have fueled both discussion and change throughout the country, spotlighting issues women have long endured in both the workplace and at home.

For Faye Wattleton, co-head of Buffkin/Baker’s governance practice, the largest context of the public dialogue this year has bolstered the number of women running for office. This may mean we’ll “see a lot more attention paid to women’s health than in the past.”

“Women’s health needs a very different lens,” she said. And that begins with the boardroom.

While the pace of change in the boardroom has been very slow, there’s an increasing dialogue around the issue for “board to reflect the marketplace of those with whom they do business and their customer base.”

“This is not just for cosmetic purposes,” said Wattleton. “The perspectives that include our different life decisions and backgrounds, expertise and development over time. Understanding that it is different for women and minorities and the white men who have traditionally dominated the board too.”

A strong personal drive to get more women in the boardroom

The company is healthier and the data is enhanced by the debate of those with differing backgrounds, she explained. It’s the idea that “I cannot bring the perspective of a white man, because I’m an African American woman.”

There have been many debates and studies that examine the impact of diversity on consumer performance, but there is no clear outcome. Wattleton said that some studies have shown that diversity results in stronger consumer performance, but others say “not so fast” when considering financial and personal impacts.

But what’s clear is that it’s changing and “it’s very significant: A company’s performance is increasingly not measured on its financial results, but its social responsibility,” said Wattleton. Issues like diversity and inclusion are being seen as increasingly important to shareholder and investors.

“And they are increasingly vocal about this,” she said. Not only that, but they’re assessing how companies handle employees, compensation rates, and other factors that were once overlooked are now becoming increasingly scrutinized.

“Corporations are being held accountable for the board reflect the market, although the change isn’t happening as quickly as we’d like,” Wattleton said. “This is the age of disruption, which raises opportunity for more blood in the boardroom, reflective of membership that can only be can only be good for board members and stakeholders.”

In the 1980s just about 13 percent of Fortune 500 companies’ board rooms consisted of women, but today that needle has only moved about 6 to 10 percent. To move the needle, Wattleton proposed that “women should not accept a solitary assignment.”

“I have a responsibility to reflect my values in my work. And shame on me, if I don’t do something personally, individually to take advantage for other women to advance,” said Wattleton. “A lot of boards with just one woman, or perhaps one minority, it would be a major step for that 19 percent and may become 20-30 percent quickly, if women on boards did not accept a solitary assignment.”

“They can trade on their position to increase diversity on boards, without fear mongering, because change brings perspective,” she added. “We have personal responsibility when we achieve a level of accomplishment and position to use it to advance the participation for everyone… that are more reflective of the world today.”

Twitter: @JF_Davis_
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