Want to Restore Public Trust? Place Women on Boards

Last Updated Dec 6, 2010 11:03 AM EST

News flash: Americans don't trust big companies. The latest Financial Trust Index released by the Chicago Booth/Kellogg Schools found only 17% have any faith in major corporations.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, is there anything leaders can do to win back the consumers' trust?

Naming more women to corporate boards might help, according to a recent survey by recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles. In its survey of 400 corporate directors, 65% of women directors said that greater diversity on the board would help rebuild trust. Only 35% of men agreed. Significantly, women directors also seemed to be more assertive than their male counterparts when it came to hot button issues, such as evaluating the board's performance and accountability issues, Heidrick found.

"I've hosted women director round tables around the world, and I have been struck by the number of women who feel comfortable asking hard questions in the boardroom. Partly because they are new, they can ask [more] things that people who have been around for a long time, who have a lot invested in the preexisting relationships," Bonnie Gwin diplomatically told me the other day. She's managing partner for Heidrick's North American Board of Directors Practice.

Both men and women directors equally professed commitment to diversity as a priority, though only half felt the boards were doing much about it. In fact, the number of women on Fortune 500 company boards remains only around 15%.

As always, there is much discussion about finding qualified women to get on boards. Most boards require operating experience, which makes sense. Poets and advocates don't have a lot of credibility.

But Gwin reports that boards increasingly want chief executive officers, not measly senior vice presidents and the like. On top of that, greater scrutiny and regulatory oversight -- not to mention the occasional Congressional grilling -- means that directors have to have enough bandwidth to bone up on the industry of the boards they're on, and even show up at meetings. That shrinks the pool even further.

So here's a thought: Why not get on your boards the women presidents of fast-growing companies? You'd score points with women and small business owners! Twofer!

Image courtesy of Morguefile contributor sideshow mom.