Boards are taking a more expansive view of diversity, but it might be at the expense of gender parity

September 13, 2022, 11:39 AM UTC
A diverse group of colleagues gather around a table
New female board appointments are slowing.
Getty Images

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! This is Lila MacLellan, author of The Modern Board newsletter, filling in for Emma. Female crypto founders allege sexual assault at a Web3-focused hype house, nurses and teachers across the U.S. go on strike, and corporate boards face a plateau with gender diversity.

– Embracing complexity. “Look at this,” Sophia Ononye-Onyia said to me at a National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) reception last month. She held up a photo on her phone: It was her, seven stories high, on the Nasdaq building in New York City’s Times Square.

Ononye-Onyia, a scientist who runs her own communications consultancy, had just joined the organization for corporate board members and other attendees to mark an NACD milestone—it had certified 1,000 directors—by ringing Nasdaq’s closing bell. “I sent this picture to my brother back home in Nigeria,” she told me. “The first thing he said was ‘Is this real?’”

Although she is not yet 40 years old, Ononye-Onyia’s list of achievements is lengthy, as is typical for women recruited to sit on corporate boards. She is a director at Daré Biosciences, a pharmaceutical company focused on women’s health, which makes sense considering that Ononye-Onyia has spent years studying triple-negative breast cancer, a disease that disproportionately affects younger, Black women. She is also an entrepreneur in residence at Yale University, and she holds an MBA in healthcare management and a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences. Oh, and she has a popular podcast about scientific innovation.

Still, her brother’s surprise is warranted. Despite decades of pressure to diversify boards, women hold about 20% of all corporate board seats on the Fortune 500, and women of color represent only 6% of the same cohort. Scores of women as accomplished as Ononye-Onyia are still not on companies’ radars.

Now, a recent report from the research firm Equilar suggests that overall gender diversity on boards may be about to plateau. The company found that women represented roughly 40% of new directors added to Russell 3000 boards in the first and second quarters of 2022, down from 41% and 47% in the same period last year. (Data from Diligent also found that the number of new women directors added to corporate boards was unchanged from last year.)

The decline might be a blip in the data, one that could soon be reversed. But Equilar director of research Courtney Yu told Reuters that boards also appear to be “focusing on diversity beyond gender.” They’re putting more of their recruiting efforts toward racial equality, in particular, as well as other aspects of diversity “such as ethnicity or sexual orientation,” Brigid Rosati, director of business development at the consulting company Georgeson, said in the Equilar report.

For now, Equilar doesn’t have the data to say for sure where these trends are heading, but directors and especially hiring committees should be mindful of subtle shifts. If boards are finally thinking expansively about diversity, that would be a positive sign and one that would ultimately make companies more inclusive and competitive. Yet that’s no excuse for boards to refrain from pursuing all forms of diversity at once; building a boardroom that reflects the U.S. population should also mean reaching gender parity.

Ononye-Onyia, for her part, says she’d like to see a wave of demand, not mere requirements, for enhanced diversity “because it’s the right thing to do, and because it fosters different perspectives, diversity of thought, and that’s really a very important ingredient for innovation.” What matters most to her are not the macro trends, but the micro-cultures within organizations and their willingness to change.

How boards evolve will be complicated, she says, and that’s okay. “It shouldn’t be like ‘This is a simple problem.’ No, it’s a complex problem. There’s a lot going on.”

Read more about Ononye-Onyia in this Friday’s Modern Board newsletter.

Lila MacLellan

The Broadsheet is Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women. Today’s edition was curated by Paige McGlauflin. Subscribe here.


- Emmy wins. A lot of firsts were earned at the Emmys last night. Quinta Brunson, Lizzo, Amanda Seyfried, Jennifer Coolidge, and Sheryl Lee Ralph all took home their first Emmy awards on Monday. Zendaya became the first Black woman to win for best leading actress in a drama series. New York Times

- Failure to launch. Launch House, the Web3-focused incubator for startup founders, capitalized on the industry’s “community” appeal and allowed young entrepreneurs to join its ranks and gain access to a lucrative cohort. But women who joined Launch House allege they were sexually harassed and assaulted with little to no repercussions for the abusers. Former members and victims say the founders were too focused on money, status, and clout to hold the accused accountable. Vox

- Cautiously optimistic. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is hopeful the U.S. can avoid a recession—so long as inflation gets under control. “Americans know it’s essential to bring inflation down and, over the longer run, we can’t have a strong labor market without inflation under control,” she said on Sunday. Fed chair Jerome Powell said last week that the central bank is “strongly committed” to lowering inflation, causing investors to expect more hikes to come soon. Yellen said the Biden administration would leave such policy to the Fed, suggesting alignment with Powell’s remarks. Fortune

- Strike out. About 15,000 nurses in Minnesota walked off their job on Monday to protest being overworked and understaffed, marking the largest private-sector nurses' strike in U.S. history; the strike is expected to last three days. In Seattle, over 6,000 teachers and other education professionals have been on strike since last Wednesday, joining the ranks of educators in Sacramento, Minneapolis, and Columbus who have all walked out this year over teacher shortages and low morale.

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: LGBTQ dating app Grindr has named former Disney Streaming Services chief financial officer Vanna Krantz as chief financial officer. HR tech company Checkr has hired former Google Cloud executive Lindsey Scrase as chief revenue officer. Fraud prevention and digital trust company Sift has hired Mary Writz as senior vice president of product. Nonprofit education and social policy research organization MDRC has appointed Harvard Graduate School of Education dean and professor Bridget Terry Long as chair of its board of directors. Bacardi has appointed Leila Stansfield as managing director of its global travel retail team.


- Scrutinizing loan forgiveness. After reports emerged that one student loan financier erroneously told borrowers they would need to resume federal loan repayments on Sept. 1 and another was giving borrowers the option to refinance their debt into private loans (making them ineligible for loan forgiveness), Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley sent letters to both companies, asking how they plan to deliver “accurate and timely information” related to relief. Insider

- Game plan. Planned Parenthood leaders from 24 states gathered in California late last week to begin building a national strategy to protect and strengthen abortion access, with the goal of repeating the success seen by California lawmakers who have implemented some of the most robust abortion protections in the country. AP

- Library lessons. Parents with children too young for school are struggling to find adequate care infrastructure, so libraries are stepping in to fill that void. They're adding stroller parking spaces, baby play nooks, and early childhood consultants. Bloomberg

- Elizabeth the philanthropist.  Over her 70 years presiding over the throne, the late monarch was patron to or president of over 600 charities. Organizations that tackle community and civic issues made up the largest share of her charitable portfolio at 14%, with education and training causes following at a close second. Barrons


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In the early days I just wanted Hispanics to have a voice in dance and for people to get to know us as people. Because, you know, you went to see a ballet, and there was somebody crouched with a sombrero, and that’s not who we are.”

-Tina Ramirez, founder of the Hispanic dance troupe Ballet Hispánico, to the New York Times in 2008. She died at the age of 92 last Tuesday.

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