On February 1, Facebook announced a $5 billion IPO—with a board made up only of white men.
What a nice plot point for an episode of Mad Men! But for a company whose mission is the “direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials, and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time,” it’s an enormous mistake.
Both women and men have written extensively on the problem with Facebook’s homogenous board from a business perspective. They know that Facebook’s revenues come from advertising, as well as apps like Farmville—revenues that come, in large part, from Facebook’s most active users: women. And they argue that women should have a seat at the table they helped build, not because this demographic deserves it for hitting the “Like” button the most, but because women are going to be a big part of the future of the industry. (Pinterest, one of the fastest growing media services in the world, owes its stardom to the 97% of its users who are women.)
Plus, studies have shown that companies with three or more female directors significantly outperform those with none: Return on equity—the shareholders’ investment in the company—is 46% greater; return on invested capital is 60% higher; return on sales is 84% better. Including women is just good business.
But some women my age—I’m 24—aren’t so sure. My friends and I were raised to believe that we could do anything, so long as we worked hard enough. If there are no women on the board yet, well, it’s probably because there are no qualified women.
But that’s not really the problem. Women are working hard. They’re valedictorians, activists, entrepreneurs, consultants, graduate students, and community organizers. They are qualified—impressively so—and when they’re asked to sit on a board, they don’t want it to be because the company has to check off a box. They want to be defined by their abilities, not their gender—and so do I.
But to use that argument to defend Facebook’s board—to argue that it’s really about abilities, not gender—is to ignore the process by which corporate directors are chosen. When it comes to boards, that old adage applies: It’s not what you know, it’s who. Although excellent candidates are often selected to serve on boards, the decision is usually not based on merit, but on networks. And that network is still the old boys club.
How do we know? Because there are, in fact, many qualified women out there. Clayton Rose, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, asserts that although some argue that there are not enough women who have the skill sets to serve on boards, “there’s nothing to that case.” It’s not a problem of supply—it’s one of demand.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women now hold 51.4% of managerial and professional jobs—up from 26.1% in 1980. But, in 2011, women occupied only 24 more board seats in the Fortune 500 than they did in 2010. That’s an increase of just .4%. At this plodding rate, it will take 40 years for women to occupy just 30% of those seats. That means that when we are in our 60s, ready and qualified to serve on a corporate board, our male peers will still stand a better chance of taking a seat at the table—for no other reason than that they are men.
Unless we start doing something about it now.
On April 2, a group of men and women from Australia to Europe to the United States to South America launched the FACE IT Campaign to poke fun at Facebook’s board, until Mark Zuckerberg expands it. The aim is to use Facebook, arguably one of the most important companies of our time, to create meaningful change in corporate America—change that has not occurred for years, despite the articles, conferences, and commitments to do better.
The composition of Facebook’s board is a problem, but it’s also a huge opportunity. Because the gender gap isn’t just senior women in business. It’s government. It’s medicine. It’s law. It’s Hollywood. This campaign will start a conversation across the world—not just about Facebook’s board, but about the people who make decisions across all industries and professions.
So, help us start that conversation—and keep it going.
Alice Baumgartner is one of the founders of the FACE IT Campaign. After graduating from college in 2010, she worked for a year at a medical clinic in rural Bolivia—an experience which dramatically increased her fear of boa constrictors and intestinal parasites. She is now studying Latin American history at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship.More from this Author