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Women business leaders encourage others to become board-ready

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NEW YORK — Women leaders in the insurance industry and other sectors on Tuesday put out the call for more women to serve on corporate boards.

In the S&P 500, 19.9 % of board members are women, according Elaine Caprio, president of Boston-based Caprio Consulting L.L.C. For the Fortune 100, that figure is 16.9 %. But in the insurance industry, only 12.5 % of board members are women. 

Ms. Caprio led a panel of top women leaders in insurance and business urging women attendees at Business Insurance’s Women to Watch conference in New York to step up to the plate. 

Women, she said, “hold most of the purchasing power of goods in the United States” — and when it comes to business, it’s time for more women to serve on decision-making corporate boards. 

“Our goal is to help each of you become board-ready,” said Ms. Caprio, who as the leader of her boutique business advisory firm was honored among the Women to Watch in 2007. 

Among her fellow panelists were Rochelle Campbell, senior manager for board recruitment services of the Washington-based National Association of Corporate Directors; Margaret Resce Milkint, a managing partner at Chicago-based The Jacobson Group; Terrie Pohjola, a member of the board of directors for Appleton, Wisconsin-based Thrivent Trust Co. and a 2011 Women to Watch honoree; and Brande Stellings, vice president of corporate board services for Catalyst Inc., a New York-based nonprofit organization that aims to accelerate progress for women in the workforce. 

Each highlighted the strategies any women who wants to serve on a board ought to implement to get on the three- to five-year career path to an appointment to a corporate board. In addition to gaining business knowledge by working in different departments of a company, the women advised attendees to gain experience with a nonprofit advisory board. 

Nonprofit organizations “are so happy to have an enthusiastic leader,” said Ms. Caprio. “Even if it isn’t in your discipline, you will learn a ton.”

That tip led into another: Learn how boards function. 

“In order to be considered for a corporate board, it is required that one know how a board works,” she said. “You gain information and expertise on complex issues that help you in your own job.” 

Ms. Campbell encouraged women to seek a formal education to serve on boards. Universities offer programs on board leadership as do private organization, she said. 

Networking is another key strategy to eventually land on an advisory board, said Ms. Pohjola, who told attendees to spread the word about one’s career goals in relations to boards. Most board openings are not widely advertised and are filled by people who know people, she said. 

“Who you know is one of the most important elements,” said Ms. Pohjola. “Being known in the network of sitting board members … we think that’s the missing link.” 

In addition to meeting and establishing relationships and mentorships with board members, one of the best steps a woman can take is to “advertise herself,” according to Ms. Milkint. 

“We are the CEOs of ourselves (and) we need to step into our power,” she said. “How we start is self-promotion … What are you known for? What is your subject matter expertise? It is so important to be visible in your space.”