At a time when colleges are graduating significantly more women than men, barely 17% of Fortune 500 company directors are female, and progress has stalled for the past seven years. This doesn't make much sense.
One well-known corporate director stirred the pot last week, playing provocateur as I led a breakfast panel at a YPO (Young Presidents' Organization) event in Chicago. Mellody Hobson, president of Chicago-based Ariel Investments, is on the boards of Starbucks (SBUX), Estee Lauder (EL), Groupon (GRPN) and DreamWorks Animation (DWA), where she is non-executive chairman. Hobson, in the audience for our discussion, posed a question to panelist Beth Comstock, General Electric's (GE) chief marketing officer and head of the new Silicon Valley-based "GE Ventures": Would GE Ventures, which aims to invest $250 million annually in tech companies, consider restricting its investments to startups that have female board members.
Comstock replied that GE would consider Hobson's suggestion; she was sensitive, clearly, to controversies over Twitter (TWTR) and Facebook (FB) going public with no women on their boards. (Facebook, after its IPO last year, named COO Sheryl Sandberg to its board.) Hobson replied impatiently: "Every VC I've asked said they'll 'consider it.'"
I asked Hobson if Ariel invests in companies that have no female directors. "We put tremendous pressure" on companies to add women and people of color, replied Hobson, who is African-American. "Diversity makes better businesses."
Former McDonald's U.S. president Jan Fields, also on the panel, noted one challenge for CEOs seeking female directors: "A lot of companies don't let their executives be on boards." Only after leaving McDonald's (MCD) a year ago, Fields was able to join a second board, Chico's (CHS), in addition to Monsanto (MON). Like McDonald's, GE lets its executives serve on one board. Comstock is a director at Nike (NKE).
Meanwhile, GE has five female directors. Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt has strategically recruited women who had big jobs and now have time to serve as well as essential experience. The five women on the 18-person GE board include former SEC chair Mary Schapiro and ex-Avon (AVP) CEO Andrea Jung.
My essay, "Is the boardroom the last glass ceiling?" in Fortune's Most Powerful Women issue proposes three ways to improve the gender ratio in the boardroom. One more suggestion: Break the rules. At Fortune's Most Powerful Women Asia conference earlier this month, Morgan Stanley (MS) China CEO Wei Christiansen told how she got on the Estee Lauder board despite her employer's rules. A powerful man, Leonard Lauder, talked to the investment bank's top bosses, CEO James Gorman and former chairman John Mack, and they got it done:
Hobson and other Fortune Most Powerful Women--Xerox (XRX) CEO Ursula Burns. Facebook's Carolyn Everson, Walt Disney's (DIS) Anne Sweeney, and Cisco's (CSCO) Padma Warrior and more--talk about how they got ahead in "Breakthrough Moments in Leadership," sponsored by ING (ING).
The 35-year veteran takes her fate in stride: "Everyone has a date stamped on their ass and they're the only one who can't see it."
FORTUNE -- For a woman who began her career cooking French fries for $2.65 an hour and never completed college, Jan Fields had an extraordinary run.
But her tenure as McDonald's (MCD) U.S. president ended yesterday, following the company's first monthly sales decline since 2003. Strategic missteps, including MOREPatricia Sellers - Nov 16, 2012 7:30 AM ET
A look back at the way the restaurant chain handled the deaths of two CEOs and found the right man for the job.
I wrote this article in 2005, a few months after Jim Skinner became CEO of McDonald's (MCD). The piece didn't run in the magazine because of space constraints, but this tale, presented here as it was written six years ago, remains as relevant as ever. The story appears MOREPatricia Sellers - Aug 23, 2011 5:00 AM ET
The McDonald's (MCD) boss behind the healthy upgrade to its U.S. menu is practicing what she preaches: She recently lost 90 pounds.
Jan Fields, who started at McDonald's 33 years ago cooking fries and is now the fast food chain's U.S. president, was soon to turn 55 when, she says, "I woke up one day and said, "Oh my God, how did I gain this much weight?"
Like millions of her customers MOREPatricia Sellers - Aug 2, 2011 3:38 PM ET
Fortune and Yahoo (YHOO) are teaming up to present weekly content -- stories and videos -- about Most Powerful Women. This is the first in a series of Postcards that will appear on Yahoo and Fortune.com.
It's the start of Most Powerful Women season at Fortune Magazine.
This is the time we begin hunting in earnest for the most successful women in business around the world. Fortune launched Most Powerful Women (MPW) in MOREPatricia Sellers - Jun 29, 2011 9:30 AM ET
by Patricia Sellers
Too often, the boss can't relate to the workers on the front line.
Not so at McDonald's (MCD).
McDonald's U.S. president Jan Fields, who today announced plans to hire 50,000 new workers in a single day, started behind the counter, cooking fries.
Her humble beginnings make her the most remarkable success on Fortune's Most Powerful Women list.
Before she started her career, cooking fries for $2.65 an hour, Fields grew up in MOREPatricia Sellers - Apr 4, 2011 1:08 PM ET
Lots of Most Powerful Women—the stars of Fortune's annual list--are moving up and making news. You know about Kraft Foods (KFT) CEO Irene Rosenfeld snagging Cadbury (CBY), the British candy giant, last week after a messy, multi-month battle. With her heftiest shareholder, Berkshire Hathaway (BRKB) CEO Warren Buffett, skeptical about the deal, Rosenfeld has plenty to prove. But assuming it goes through, the acquisition will make Kraft larger than MOREPatricia Sellers - Jan 25, 2010 3:52 PM ET
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