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Stability and change: the presence and absence of women in Tennessee's corporate board rooms.


Tennessee is changing. Once considered an agriculturally-based economy with low levels of education, few corporations, limited attraction to industry outside of tourism (with a limited market at that), and no top-tier research universities, the conventional wisdom on the economic outlook for Tennessee was grim. However, the actuality of Tennessee has now been realized by decision makers inside and outside the state. People understand that today Tennessee has a wealth of resources to offer companies.

According to, Tennessee is business-ready with an anchor strategy in place for attracting major industries. In short, the Volunteer State has become an international hot spot for global industry, and this website's profile on Tennessee makes it clear that the state is enjoying a true transformation of its business outlook.

The Globalization of Tennessee Firms

With its attractive, competitive rate structure for companies, state government has eagerly recruited firms. Private and flagship universities are raising their profiles in research output, and "Race to the Top" reforms are galvanizing elementary and secondary education improvements. Not surprisingly, firms have responded. Within the past few years, Tennessee has successfully landed such firms as Alstom, Amazon, Confluence Solar, Hemlock Semiconductor, Volkswagen, and Wacker Chemic AG. As evidenced by Alstom, Volkswagen, and Wacker Chemie alone, Tennessee has been successful in recruiting international firms within its borders.

The introduction of such large, international firms bringing their business to Tennessee emphasizes the importance of a business' footprint. The expectations of the workforce, the changes in school systems, the growth of international-based restaurants, and even new products at grocery stores are influenced by the changing tastes of an international clientele. What is less obvious, but equally important, is the footprint of standard business practices. International firms bring their own sets of expectations from employees at all levels of the organization. One area the state typically forgets when advocating a business to locate here is the expectation of gender equity in the boardroom.

Women on Corporate Boards

There are well over 200 international companies licensed to do business in Tennessee ("Foreign Owned Subsidiaries in Tennessee," 2010). Of these companies, a sizable number are European-based, so their business cultures and practices are important for Tennessee companies to understand. For the sake of international comparisons, numerous countries require that public-limited companies have women serving on their boards of directors. In the "Gender Equality in Corporate Boards" report, women represent 11.0 percent of company board members in the European Union. Norway was the first country to implement a 40.0 percent quota of women on boards, and Spain followed in 2007 with a goal of 40.0 percent female representation by 2015. Iceland's gender equality law was passed in March 2010 and requires those Icelandic companies with more than 50 employees to have 40.0 percent female representation by September 2013. France passed their gender law in January 2010 requiring French firms of more than 500 employees to reach a 20.0 percent quota within three years and to reach 40.0 percent female representation on boards by 2017. Interestingly, 23.6 percent of Finland's corporate boards are female. Still other countries (Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Israel, and South Africa) have pending requirements that women constitute between 30.0 percent and 50.0 percent of a board of directors. Taken together, these regulations make it clear that modern international economies are operating with the expectation that women will be significantly present in decision-making arenas of boards of directors.

In the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) adopted amendments to rules on the diversity of directors (see The new rules require disclosure of how nominating committees consider diversity in identifying nominees for director positions. Implementation of such a policy and its effectiveness are assessed. Also Bloxham (2011) reports that the SEC rules allow each company to define diversity in its own way, which may include differences in viewpoint, professional experience, education, skill, race, gender, national origin, or other qualities or attributes that will provide the board with a varied perspective.

Where is Tennessee in this mix? The results are debatable. In 2010, women held 8.4 percent of board seats; in 2007, 8.2 percent; in 2002, 5.8 percent; and in 1995, 5.4 percent. In comparison, 7.9 percent of directorships of Alabama's publicly-traded companies were held by women ("Women Directors and Executive Leaders," 2011). However, compared to the U. S. Fortune 500 companies, both Tennessee and Alabama are woefully behind. Nationally, women held 15.2 percent of corporate board seats in 2009, and in 2010, the number had increased slightly to 15.7 percent not a huge increase, but trending positively (Catalyst Report, 2010).

Issues of Concern

One of the enduring concerns of board development and CEO influence is the issue of inside or outside directors. The assumption is that CEOs may have undue influence on internal agents. However, research shows this could be a simplistic understanding of the issues involved. Masulis and Mobbs (2011) have shown that when inside directors hold external directorships as well, the firms for which they are insiders have strong operating performance. One implication of this finding is that networking for directors can bring profitability to the respective firms. Using social network analysis techniques, Valenti and Homer (2010) take the examination of CEO influence and board control one step further. They suggest that board members should resist the temptation to be overly engaged, that is, serve on multiple boards. Indeed, they argue that "while a certain amount of expertise and prestige is derived from membership on several boards, the benefits associated with multiple board seats may be canceled out by the loss of time and commitment which may accompany numerous appointments" (p. 123). Clearly, recent research on the issue is mixed, but it is equally clear that service on other boards, even if limited to one or two, is beneficial.

Another way to consider the impact of network ties is through the mix of people brought to the notice of decision makers, most especially those who can nominate others for board membership. In their analysis of network ties and demographic minorities on boards, Westphal and Milton (2000) show that minority status is important and mutable. Specifically, majority board members who have served in a minority status on other boards should be more responsive to the position of minority board members, a shared experience or empathy argument. Moreover, Westphal and Milton also argue that social capital will enhance minority influence. If board members share other board memberships, the indirect tie will provide a basis for social cohesion (p. 373). Westphal's and Milton's extensive analysis suggests this is indeed the result: "Obstacles to minority influence in strategic decision making can be avoided by prior experiences or social network ties that enable minority directors to create the perception of similarity to the majority" (p. 389). The shared experience of serving on other boards, or having board peers who understand minority status, can bind board members together. Simply put, it becomes about business and not other factors.

The business environment and economy of Tennessee are growing and becoming more complex. The issues in our latest longitudinal study are threefold: (1) there are 89 publicly-traded firms headquartered state-wide; (2) the SEC requires that firms take the selection of corporate directors more seriously and that at least one of the components involve the creation and implementation of a diversity plan; and (3) there is a growing awareness of the importance of bringing women into corporate governance.

The research questions in this study have remained consistent: How are women selected to serve on corporate boards in Tennessee? What are nominating committees looking for? How can ambitious women advance their career opportunities to serve on boards? Is the business climate changing to be more inclusive of women at the decision-making level?

Ultimately, these questions are important for women because the evidence is clear: women at the top bring along other women (USAToday, 2011). The more women who occupy the CEO office, the more women will serve in other executive suite offices. Women who hold executive positions are more likely to be asked to serve on boards of other companies. This is also true for men.

In the 15 years of study of the presence (and absence) of women on Tennessee-based boards, there has been change and stability. The numbers and percentages of women serving on boards have increased, and there has been remarkable stability in the specification of key criteria for selecting new members. While the state continues to change and grow, there is still opportunity for women to become more participative in shaping both the business climate and strategies in Tennessee.

Study Methodology

This research is the final analysis in a longitudinal study on women as corporate board members in Tennessee (see Arfken, Bellar, & Helms, 1998; Bellar, Helms, & Arlken, 2004; Arfken, Bellar, & Helms, 2004; and Helms, Arfken, & Bellar, 2008). It remains vital to follow the established protocol. To that end, a list of corporations headquartered in Tennessee was compiled from a Reference USA (Infogroup/Reference Division) database using headquartered in the state and publicly owned as the filters. From that list, web search engines were utilized to confirm that the businesses were still operating, were headquartered in the state, and the names and addresses of the CEO were correct. Web-based searches were also used to identify members of the boards of directors. When it was not possible to locate board of director membership on the company web pages or when names were gender ambiguous and there were no pictures to identify gender, Bloomberg BusinessWeek's website was consulted to identify gender. Finally, as a tertiary check on the list of businesses, the list was compared with the one utilized by CABLE for their report on women on Tennessee boards (BusinessWeek, 2011). The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Institutional Review Board again granted approval for the survey instruments, which were sent to 89 company CEOs in July 2011, with a follow-up survey in October 2011.

Tennessee CEOs Respond

When asked how board members are nominated in their organization, 27 CEOs responded that the majority were nominated by committee (39.0 percent), followed by individual board member (29.0 percent), or recommendation of the CEO (24.0 percent). Open-ended comments by the CEO respondents mentioned use of an outside, external search firm or headhunter, especially a firm headed by a woman or minority; recommendation by the chair; or recommendations from the nominating and governance (N&G) committee, with suggestions and collaboration from the CEO, board members, and stockholders.

When selecting new board members, as shown in Table 2, CEOs valued experience at the executive level and financial expertise equally: the responses were tied (19.0 percent each for the most important selection criteria, followed by the member's educational background and expertise in the product or service area of the organization).

Interestingly, the majority of CEO respondents (52.0 percent) were not actively attempting to increase the representation of women on their corporate boards. The 48.0 percent who were ranked the top four reasons for recruiting women to their boards as (1) to increase diversity of knowledge (31.0 percent); (2) to obtain flesh viewpoints and insights (19.0 percent); (2) to gain new knowledge or opinions (17.0 percent); and (4) to mirror current population trends (12.0 per cent). The comparison of these rankings over time is shown in Table 3. Open-ended comments to this question mentioned that firms were either not planning to increase the size of the board or, if they were, they would consider a male or female as long as the person was knowledgeable about the industry and had CEO experience. Another CEO mentioned that if a female candidate were proposed, the board would certainly consider the nomination. Another respondent mentioned that women brought a different perspective to a number of valuable issues, including marketing and sales.

When polled about where companies typically locate suitable females, 40.0 percent of the responding CEOs noted they would rely on recommendations from colleagues, while 27.0 percent would choose from other corporate board members. Next in importance were search firms (13.0 percent), local civic and/or professional organizations (8.0 percent), and area universities and colleges (6.0 percent). No one noted using directories, and the 6.0 percent who use other avenues noted that broad search experts and national search firms were employed. The Tennessee CEOs also noted that they do not use self-promotion for open company board positions from either men (70.0 percent) or women (85.0 percent), although several later open-ended comments on how women could secure a board seat mentioned self-promotion.

The Tennessee CEOs responding sit on three or fewer boards of publicly-traded companies themselves. Three of the 27 respondents (11.0 percent) do not serve on other boards, while the majority (59.0 percent) serve on only one outside board. Six respondents serve on two boards, while two respondents serve on three outside boards.

As previously noted, the number of women on Tennessee corporate boards, while slowly improving, lags behind the national rate. When asked if they think the selection process in Tennessee is representative of that in other states, 80.0 percent of the CEO respondents said "yes." The justifications for this response were provocative. Christopher Headrick, President and CEO of Americas Energy Company in Knoxville, noted, "I see very few women on the boards I present to in New York, Chicago, etc." While most public companies are trying to enlist women directors, one CEO noted that they often stumble due to the small pool of qualified and willing candidates. Mitchell Steiner, M.D., Vice-Chair and CEO of GTx, Inc., notes there is "no reason to believe Tennessee is different by choice." Several other comments noted that diversity is not an issue to them, and they consider qualifications for the position rather than gender. On a positive note, "I believe Tennessee is focused on improving," said John B. Crowe, Chairman and CEO of Buckeye Technologies, Inc., of Memphis, and he cited the report "Women in Corporate Leadership, 2011" sponsored by CABLE: Connecting Women and Opportunity with Lipscomb University College of Business as a positive example of growing emphasis on gender diversity on boards.

The study polled the executives on the various processes or strategies professional women could use to secure consideration for board membership in a publicly-traded company. The responses were not surprising. Mitchell Steiner, Vice Chairman and CEO of GTx, again had a quote that summarized most of the responses. He wrote, "As they [women] gain more experience at an executive level, then board composition will reflect a greater number of women." Similarly, Ron DeBerry of Commerce Union Bank noted, "To be on a board, a woman must be a successful business leader and leader in the community." David D. Stevens, Chair and Interim CEO of Wright Medical Group, Inc., said, "Recommendations from other independent board members on other public boards and CEO recommendations could be used." The group did not recommend self-promotion as a means of securing a board seat, and when asked if women were effective in sell-promotion in their careers, on boards, and in general, the respondents as a group reported they did not know.

The respondents also noted factors that make it difficult to achieve board diversity. Colin V. Reed, Chairman and CEO of Gaylord Entertainment, offered, "I suppose a lack of will, not a lack of talent!", while Christopher L. Headrick, President and CEO of Americas Energy Company, noted, "Experience in the industry is the most critical issue for us; unfortunately, there are very few women in our industry." Dr. J. Don Brock of Aster Industries responded that it was difficult to find "active people with experience in the trenches."

Studies comparing women and men on their decision making suggest that they respond to risk differently; and, in most cases, women are found to be more averse to risk than are men (Eckel & Grossman, 2008). Gender differences in financial risk taking are influenced not only by gender, but also by age, race, and a woman's number of children (Jianakoplos & Bernasek, 1998). This widespread view concerning women's risk aversion in financial decision making has even been put forward as a major cause of "glass ceilings" (Schubert, Brown, Gysler, & Brachinger, 1999). In our sample, a large majority (68.0 percent) of the CEOs disagreed that women are more risk averse in their decision making on boards. The literature has also depicted women as more ethical than men (Hoffman, 1998). But, when considering the ethical differences by gender, the Tennessee CEOs also largely (56.0 percent) disagreed that women are more likely to bring a moral or ethical awareness to board decisions.

In this study, as compared to our past research, the CEOs seemed more positive about the nature of the study. In the past, comments were pointed and almost negative toward gender diversity; sometimes the CEOs even objected to being asked about the topic. This year, the respondents are more realistic and offered concrete suggestions and advice. Dr. Brock of Aster noted, "The person first must be capable of doing the job. Too many boards are loaded with people who may meet the diversity requirement but have no idea of how to run a business or hold management accountable." David D. Stevens, of Wright Medical Group, said, "Presently the three public boards I serve on have women directors, as did the public company I ran as chairman and CEO. I think it is important to have diversity of all types represented on your board." Ron DeBerry of Commerce Union Bank in Springfield, TN, replied, "Just like men, some women prove to be excellent board members, and some are just too passive."

Stability and Change Indeed: Concluding Remarks

Interestingly, in the 15 years of this research stream studying the composition of boards in publicly-held companies in Tennessee, the number of firms has ranged from a low of 54 in 1995 to a high of 102 companies in 2002. Given the in--and out-migration of companies over time, it could be hypothesized that the influx should have improved the gender diversity of corporate boards. That is not the case, however. The increase in the number of women on corporate boards has inched up from 5.4 percent in 1995 to 8.4 percent in 2010. Although not necessarily headquartered in Tennessee, with the influx of international companies to the state, future re search should investigate the extent to which those firms are changing the standards of business protocol. If international firms are accustomed to seeing and hearing women in their boardrooms elsewhere in the world, particularly in Europe, will they expect the same in Tennessee's boardrooms? This is a time for women to be more optimistic about their opportunities to join the ranks of corporate board members. However, women will need resumes demonstrating executive and financial leadership. They may also use social networks as a means of self-promotion to the boardroom or at least for increased recognition and awareness. Women should also realize that attaining membership on one board often leads to membership on other boards of directors. Finally, the title of this analysis is indeed correct. There has been stability, and Tennessee has not lost ground in the presence of women on corporate boards, but the presence is also limited and does not mirror that of other countries. Yet the positive, albeit slow, trend line for Tennessee provides ongoing reason to be optimistic for future female representation on corporate boards.


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by Stephanie L. Bellar, PhD, Professor of Political Science, Public Administration, and Nonprofit Management, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga; Marilyn M. Helms, DBA, CFPIM, CIRM, CSCP, CQM/OE, Sesquicentennial Chair and Professor of Management, School of Business, Dalton State College; and Deborah E. Arfken, EdD, Professor of Political Science, Public Administration, and Nonprofit Management, The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Stephanie L. Bellar, PhD

Stephanie L. Bellar is Professor of Political Science, Public Administration, and Nonprofit Administration at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is an alumna of Austin Peay State University (8S 1978. MS 1980) and the University of Kentucky (PhD, 1986), She was a participant in the Women in Higher Education Administration Management Institute. Wellesley College 2000-2001 Her research interests are in the areas of women's leadership and community building with a special focus on rural communities. Recently, her work has begun examining e-government and social media as tool for engaging with citizens. She has won the Student Government Association award for Outstanding Teaching and was the first recipient of the E Award. Tennessee Economic Council of Women for Outstanding Contributions for the Economic Education of Women in Tennessee.

Marilyn M. Helms, DDA, CFPIM, CIRM, CSCP, CQM/OE

Marilyn M. Helms is the Sesquicentennial Chair and Professor of Management at Dalton State College in Dalton. Georgia. She is an alumna of the University of Memphis (BBA 1982. MBA 1984, DBA 1987). She had published extensively on the topics of strategy, quality, and international management. In addition, she writes a monthly column on management issues for the Dalton Daily Citizen newspaper. She was awarded the Fulbright Teaching and Research Award and taught at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. She has extensive international teaching experience. She was the recipient of the 2007 Regents' Teaching Excellence Award for University System of Georgia Two-Year and State Colleges as well as a recipient of the 2006 Dalton State College Foundation Teaching Excellence Award. Her recent research interests include e-commerce, customer service management, and student satisfaction with online and hybrid courses.

Deborah E. Arfken, EdD

Deborah Elwell Arfken is a tenured professor in the Department of Political Science, Public Administration, and Nonprofit Management at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is responsible for university planning, particularly implementing the university's strategic plan and co-chairing the campus master plan. Dr. Arfken teaches two online courses [Resource Development and Executive Processes) in the MPA program. Her research interests include work/management concerns, especially as they relate to nonprofit organizations. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from the College of Wooster, a master's degree in American Civilization from the University of Pennsylvania, and a doctorate in Supervision and Administration from the University of Tennessee. Dr. Arfken has served on a number of nonprofit boards and is currently the vice president of Girls Inc, of Chattanooga. She enjoys serving on site committees for the Commission on Colleges for the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges.
Table 1. Publicly-Held Companies in Tennessee, Selected Years

                      1995       2002          2007          2010

Number of             54      102            99            89

Number of             20       38            38            44
Companies with
Women Directors

Total Number of      461      891           584           718

Number of Women       25       52            48            60

Percent of Women       5.4%     5.8%          8.2%          8.4%
on Boards

Percentage           --         7.4%         41.4%          2.4%
Increase from                 (1995-2002)   (2002-2007)   (2007-2010)
Prior Study Period

Table 2. CEOs' Top Criteria for Selecting New Board Members, Selected

Rank                1995                             2002

 1.    Level of experience at the       Level of experience at the
       executive level                  executive level

 2.    Experience in the product or     Financial expertise
       service area

 3.    Public standing or recognition   Current or past service on
                                        other boards

 4.    Financial expertise              Educational background

 5.    Current or past service on       Experience in the product or
       other boards                     service area

Rank                2007                             2010

 1.    Expertise in the product or      Experience at the executive
       service area                     level; financial expertise

 2.    Financial expertise              Educational background

 3.    Current service on other         Current service on other
       boards                           boards

 4.    Level of experience at the       Technological expertise
       executive level; past service
       on other boards (tie)

 5.    Educational background           Current service on other

Table 3. Top Four Selection Criteria of CEOs Actively Seeking Women
on Corporate Boards, Selected Years

Rank               1995                             2002

 1.    Diversity of knowledge          Fresh viewpoints and insights

 2.    Fresh viewpoints and insights   Mirroring of population trends

 3.    New knowledge or opinions       Diversity of knowledge

 4.    Enhanced strategic planning     New knowledge or opinions

Rank                2007                             2010

 1.    Diversity of knowledge           Diversity of knowledge
       (three-way tie for number 1)

 2.    Fresh viewpoints and insights;   Fresh viewpoints and insights
       new knowledge or opinions
       (three-way tie for number 1)

 3.    New knowledge or opinions        New knowledge or opinions
       (three-way tie for number 1)

 4.    Mirroring of population trends   Mirroring of population trends
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Author:Bellar, Stephanie L.; Helms, Marilyn M.; Arfken, Deborah E.
Publication:Business Perspectives
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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