Wielding Our Power

by Katherine Giscombe

Have you ever thought about who influences societal change? Who is positioned to make lives better for Americans?

Elected officials may come to mind. But when you think about the scope of responsibility and potential impact, one of the most powerful positions imaginable is being on a corporate board of directors. As a board member, you are responsible for overseeing the effective management of an entire corporation through establishing policies and goals, overseeing the performance of the CEO, and ensuring fiduciary accountability to corporate shareholders.

However, corporations do not exist in isolation. Corporations affect the economic and social well-being of surrounding communities—for example, by choosing not to pollute the environment, by hiring local talent, and by providing charitable services to the community. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs have become more prevalent; about two-thirds of board shareholders, on average, expect companies to have CSR programs. As with their other corporate business, corporate boards typically oversee a company’s implementation of CSR programs.

Corporate board members are in a unique position to push forward social change. Research has found that the more closely board members are linked to external groups, the more they represent community legitimization. Studies also show that the presence of women on boards influences the level of charitable giving activities.

Women of color, in particular, may bring their unique perspective to a corporate board. Catalyst research found that many women of color view their experiences and cultural backgrounds as making them more fair and sensitive to the needs of other employees. This is due in part to the “outsider-within” perspective, bringing the knowledge and experience gained from being an outsider to one’s role as an insider, which can help one be more cognizant of issues surrounding unfairness and exclusion.

Because women of color are typically not in the inner circle of power, they often recognize the subtle privileges accrued by those who are in power. For example, they may recognize that rules are applied loosely to the “in” group and strictly to the “out” group. They also may embrace their outsider status to challenge norms within the company about how things are done.

To be sure, women of color who are aware of social injustices in the workplace and beyond possess a multiplicity of perspectives—not just their formal roles, but their gender and racial roles as well. First Lady Michelle Obama even spoke in a poignant and powerful statement about what it meant to wake up every day in a house built by slaves.

At this point, the representation of women of color on boards is quite low. Although the US Census Bureau projects that women of color will make up 53 percent of women in the United States by 2050, Catalyst’s recent report, Still Too Few: Women of Color on Boards, reveals they are nearly absent from most Fortune 500 boards.

Everyone in corporations needs to be grooming young women of color for the senior-level positions in corporations that are essential to gaining board seats. This will create a lever for change to bring about gender and racial equality in the country.

Catalyst recently announced that half of its Women On Board US inaugural class of eight participants are women of color. Catalyst has played its part. Will your company? DW

Katherine Giscombe, PhD, is Catalyst’s Vice President and Women of Color Practitioner, Global Member Services.
Katherine Giscombe, PhD

Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit organization expanding opportunities for women and business. With operations in the United States, Canada, Europe, India, Australia, and Japan, and more than 800 member organizations, Catalyst is the trusted resource for research, information, and advice about women at work.

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