GTWN initiative “Global Board Ready Women” leads to European Quota for Women on Boards

February 28, 2023

Candace Johnson, GTWN Founding President and Bridget Cosgrave, GTWN President Emeritus

Ten years ago, the GTWN was called on by GTWN Lifetime Achievement Award Winner and the then 1st Vice President of the European Commission, Viviane Reding to help her with her initiative to establish a quota of 40 % to put Women on Boards of publicly listed companies throughout the European Union. As Viviane said at the time, “We don’t like Quotas, but we like what they do”.

Establishing a Task Force

We quickly swung into action, enlisting all of the GTWN International Board Members and the European Business Schools to support this initiative. They were joined by a group of incredibly motivated and active women executives around Europe. This task force included the likes of Cristina Vicini, President TIAW (The International Alliance of Women); Lori Gonnu SFR Vice President; Audrey Mandela, President of WiTT (Women in Telecoms and Technology); Lesley Stephenson. Publisher FT Board Director Programme, Owner Governance Publishing; Lady Barbara Judge; Marina Niforos, Director AmCham France; Elissa Sangster and Diane Morgan, Forte Foundation; Anne Negre, Vice President International Federation of University Women, Marijo Bos, President European Professional Women’s Network; Brigitte Boone, CEO Merchant Banking Fortis Bank and Claire Bergery-Noel, Vice President EDHEC.

Global Board Ready Women database

Galled by the fact that Executive Search firms and many corporate boards were saying that “they could not find enough qualified women” as well as, despite many reports by McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, among others, showing that “diversified” boards had better results than mostly (sometimes all) white male boards, they went into action to disprove this overwhelming sentiment and myth and to establish a list of highly qualified women. This resulted in the setting up of the Global Board Ready Women data base, together with the Association of Executive Search Consultants and the Forte Foundation, site/PageServer?pagename=women_boards.

Establishing Criteria and the role of the Business Schools

First action to be undertaken was to establish globally accepted criteria for Board positions. For be it men or women, the task force soon found out that there were no real criteria for choosing Non-Executive Directors or Independent Board Members.

The link to the Business Schools had early on been established as critical. They had a list of C-level Alumnae which could be consulted; they usually had a Board of Governors who had corporate Chairs and CEO’s who could appoint women to their boards; and they had a

pool of corporate governance professors who could help establish criteria for NEDs and Independent Board Members. The pioneering work and support of such business schools to this endeavor – including EDHEC, London Business School, INSEAD, ESPC, Esade, Essec, etc. – cannot be overestimated. In particular, EDHEC, France’s largest business school, played a critical role by hosting the GBRW website, convincing the other business schools to join us, and providing corporate governance leadership and tracking.

As such, the GBRW Task Force had access to the best minds on Corporate Governance and set Quantitative and Qualitative Criteria, which were used to inform the database and which has consequently set the global standard for selecting NED’s and Independent Board Members. The criteria may be found at PageServer?pagename=women_boards.

From European Business School Women on Boards to Global Board Ready Women

Viviane Reding had purposely set the quota to be applied only for publicly listed companies as they would be the most prone to replying to shareholders who would need to follow what today is ESG, but at the time was CSR. The idea was also that in focusing on Board positions, this would trickle down to the C-Level and then within the entire corporate structure. It quickly turned out that whereas the initiative was aimed at European corporations, the arena in which Vice President Reding was operating, there was a real need for most of these corporations to have Board members who had experience and expertise in regions and countries outside of Europe. The GTWN/European Business School Board Ready Women thus became the Global Board Ready Women initiative.

Selecting the Candidates

It was one thing to have an excellent list of experienced Women Executives which the Business Schools and professional associations around the world, (the Global Women’s Accounting group, the Women Lawyers group, etc.) including of course the GTWN, it was another thing to apply the criteria and select truly Global Board Ready Women. Every Saturday, Bridget, Cristina, Lori, and Candace would go through the candidates who had been recommended to apply to our Global Board Ready Women Linked In group. We knew that we would have highly qualified candidates, but we were exhilarated to receive applications from immensely qualified women who were then selected to be Global Board Ready Women. We were also thrilled to find candidates who, although not fitting the criteria precisely at the time of application because of age or lack of experience, would soon do so. We were thus ensured of the “next generation” of women on boards, reinforcing the GTWN’s purpose of “Changing the Culture of Communications… from Generation to Generation”.

Destroying the Myth of “not enough qualified women”

Armed with a database of more than 8000 qualified women, we began promoting it to executive search consultants, corporations, and institutions in which governments had large shareholdings, such as the British Business Bank, Deutsche Telekom, Telecom Italia, etc. We discovered that at the time, executive search consultants were usually not paid for to find board candidates. Without any of the formal selection criteria that we had established, appointments relied on individual recommendations from existing board members of people from their own networks, thus largely excluding anyone from outside those groups. This discovery also led to the practice of requesting women who were asked to be on a board but could not accept the appointment for a variety of reasons, to always recommend other women who could fill the position. It also led to us realise that we also had to change the culture of executive search consultants, among others.

Partnership with the AESC Executive Search and Forte Foundation

In 2013 we announced a partnership with the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC). This partnership was specifically aimed at encouraging their key members, including Korn Ferry, Spencer Stuart, Heidrick & Struggles, etc., to be pro-active with their clients in working with them on board appointments. They were also given access to our GBRW database, while those women were given free membership of the AESC Blue Steps program. This resulted in the program swelling to become a database of more than 25,000 women executives, who had access to executive search consultants around the world.

In 2017, we solidified our relationship with the Forte Foundation to manage the database going forward. Their partner, international search consultants Phoenix Executive, also agreed to not only use the database but also to promote it to corporations and publicly-owned corporations.

A vision is realised

Currently only 8.5% of Board Chairs in Europe are women. By 2026 companies will need to have 40% of the ‘underrepresented sex’ (which is always women) among non-executive directors or 33% among all directors. Member States will have two years after publication of the Directive to transpose its provisions into national law.

On becoming EU President, Ursula von der Leyen committed to building a majority to unblock the Directive on women on boards, which had been delayed by Member States through most of the past decade. Finally, on 14 March 2022, the Council adopted its general approach, unblocking the file. On 23 March 2022, the European Parliament reconfirmed its position, allowing to start the negotiations with the Council of the EU. On

7 June 2022, the European Parliament and the Council reached the political agreement, paving the way for the final adoption of the file.

On 06 June 2022, the night before the Parliament voted on the Quota of 40 % of Women on Boards, EU Commission President Ursula van der Leyen, an early supporter when she was a member of the cabinet in Germany, called Viviane Reding to invite her to Strasbourg to be present at the vote. The first call Viviane made was to the GTWN and the GBRW to thank us. We know this is just a first step, but one that we truly believe will bring about better corporate governance today and for the next generation.

This photo of Viviane Reding and Urusla von der Leyen was taken on the night of the decision.

On 22 November 2022 the European Parliament formally adopted the new EU law on gender balance on corporate boards. This was a great day for the GTWN and for all of the women in European business who have worked so hard for more than a decade to make this a reality.

Watch the video which provides Viviane Reding’s personal view of the importance of this initiative and the reasons behind it: watch?v=DQPX_vxct4g

Changing the Culture of Communications… from Generation to Generation

Everyone who has tried to change the status quo knows how difficult it is. Which makes this achievement all the more remarkable. When we first started on this endeavour, we knew it would be difficult but none of us fully understood that it would take a decade of hard work to realise Viviane Reding’s initiative. All we knew was that we HAD to do it for the future of women and the future of business and society and to fulfil the GTWN’s promise of ‘changing the culture of communications… from generation to generation’.