Finding a Place and a Voice on Corporate and Nonprofit Boards

Women board members share insights into the intricacies and fulfillments of serving as a director.

By Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor

Progress is reaching the corporate boardroom, thanks to #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and the need for strategy advisors wise to cybercrime, infrastructure, artificial intelligence, and post-COVID economic volatility.

The result? A growing number of companies are seeking women with capabilities common among SWE members to serve on their boards of directors.

Of course, women with sought-after expertise have held board memberships for decades. They include two former SWE presidents and a former SWE board member who enthusiastically offer their advice about how to prepare for and get noticed as a board member candidate — and three other experts who offer tips on how to assess board membership possibilities.

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Use your voice

A 24-year veteran board member says the most important lessons she has learned are the value of networking and staying open-minded to how men communicate.

“Understanding male humor, male behavior, and male expectation has been really important for me to succeed,” said Jill S. Tietjen, P.E., F.SWE, president and CEO of Technically Speaking, and former SWE president (1991–92) and board member from 1988–1993 who spent 11 years as an outside director on the board of Merrick & Co. and was just re-elected to a three-year term after serving 24 years on the board of the Georgia Transmission Corporation, an electric utility.

Tietjen said she was well versed in men’s communication styles — such as teasing people they like and accept — since she grew up with two brothers and was in the third class of women admitted as undergraduates to the University of Virginia. She was graduated with only six other women from the engineering school there in 1976.

“If you don’t understand and you get offended or your feathers ruffled,” she said, it’s tougher to gain rapport.

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“I said, ‘I really dislike this. The tone of elitism is very offensive. I’ve marked it up and would be glad to recommend how to make it less this tone.’ We started the meeting … and by 10:30 a.m., everyone had figured out how to use the word ‘elitism.’”

– Jill S. Tietjen, P.E., F.SWE, president and CEO, Technically Speaking; and former SWE president and board member

Tietjen said she knew that she had a voice when she objected to what she considered elitist language in a proposed handbook while she served as the only woman on an 11-member board. “The more I read the handbook, the more incensed I got,” she said. “Because of its tone — it was complete and total elitism — filled with innuendo such as ‘because we’re the leaders, we deserve this stock,’ and ‘we’re the ones who deserve to be enrolled in this program’ when company employees had no such benefits.

“I said, ‘I really dislike this. The tone of elitism is very offensive. I’ve marked it up and would be glad to recommend how to make it less this tone.’

“We started the meeting — the 10 other board members and the male corporate counsel — at 8 a.m. and went until noon. By 10:30 a.m., everyone had figured out how to use the word ‘elitism.’” And, when the company’s newly elected board meets soon, it will include four women.

Tietjen discovered the value of networking when she met a woman who would become a lifelong friend and ally at a hospitality suite at a leadership conference for women employed in the utility industries of gas, electric, water, and telephone. Tietjen was hobbling around in a knee brace after having knee-reconstruction surgery, and she struck up an instant friendship while socializing.

“Yes, you have to be technically qualified [to serve on a board], and someone has to recommend you,” said Tietjen, who is listed in Who’s Who in Engineering, Who’s Who in Science and Engineering, and Who’s Who in Technology. “But the networking part is key. That’s because 80% of the time, you are selected through some kind of referral process by someone on the board or on the senior leadership team.”

Take board-readiness training

Siddika Demir, former SWE president (2010–11), SWE board member (2007–2010), and founder and managing director of medicine and consumer applications tech solutions firm Orangenkern GmbH, started a new role as a board member for a startup — Babelus, a Madrid- and Miami-based platform powered by artificial intelligence and human-in-the-loop technology that searches for suppliers based on required specifications and helps emerging vendors connect with corporations. She also has served on the boards of cultural and philanthropic nonprofits.

“Investigate the type of board you might want to work on, and think of the company size and type — a private or public company, an early-stage startup or an established firm, international, or a SPAC,” said Demir, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering. SPACs, or special purpose acquisition companies, have become the hottest trend on Wall Street as companies such as DraftKings, Opendoor, and Virgin Galactic went public by merging with SPACs. A SPAC has no commercial operations and is created for the sole purpose of raising capital through an initial public offering so it can acquire an existing company.

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Indeed, Babelus founder and CEO Luis Juarez invited Demir to join his company’s board on the advice of Juarez’s female mentor, Hulya Koc. Koc is a San Francisco Bay Area angel investor, startup advisor, and co-founder and co-president of the nonprofit Empowering the Turkish-American Community.

“Siddika’s contribution is proving invaluable,” said Juarez, an electrical engineer and serial entrepreneur who credits his mother and his first direct boss at a transnational company with enhancing his understanding of women’s skills, focus, and intelligence. “[Siddika and I] share the same values. I must admit that I sleep a little less because of all the ingenious questions that come out of her curious mind, supported by so many years of experience and study.”

“Her contribution is helping us tremendously to accelerate and refine our business model — something we urgently needed,” Juarez said.

Demir also encourages SWE members to take board-readiness training — as she did — to understand what board membership entails and how they can articulate their value propositions, or, as Demir put it, “the superpowers that might differentiate you” from other board candidates. Demir took online board-readiness training through How Women Lead, which works with experienced, senior-level women to expand their presence beyond their own fields and to help expand opportunities for other women. Other board-training firms include Athena Alliance and Women in Bio. Another option is to obtain a directorship certification through the National Association of Corporate Directors.

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“One key is being visible. Write articles and speak at conferences in front of key audiences. Remember, too, that it might take time. Be patient, network, and let your network know of your interest in a board seat.”

– Siddika Demir, founder and managing director, Orangenkern GmbH

Semahat Demir, Ph.D. — she and Siddika are sisters — is a veteran board member who has served as a member of SWE’s board (2006–2008 and 2010–2012); as director of the National Science Foundation’s funding program for biomedical engineering; as a director of 20 other interdisciplinary programs with U.S. funding agencies; and as a professor of biomedical engineering. She also served on the board of trustees of two universities; on the advisory boards of startup and established private companies; as the president, or rector, of Istanbul (Turkey) Kültür University; and as president and as a member of boards of international nonprofits.

Dr. Demir said women should leverage their experience. “People would like to hear your story when you’re more senior in your career,” she said. “There are so many wonderful opportunities (to serve as a director). Ask yourself, ‘Where would you feel most comfortable?’” She said that she considers serving on boards as part of her enduring passion for and work in education.

“I think of it as mentoring ideas and people, and making sure they can succeed.”

– Semahat Demir, Ph.D., board president, Science Heroes Association

Tietjen said SWE members should also take note that engineers with significant profit and loss responsibility make for attractive board candidates, especially those who are or have been university presidents or presidents of large company business units. Such expertise is important to help guide strategic planning.

Another way to demonstrate interest in company strategy is by getting an MBA, said Tietjen, who earned her MBA by going to school at night while working full time.

Board membership carries serious responsibilities, so it’s also smart to be aware of cases such as Blue Bell ice cream, she said. In that case, the directors were held liable after they were left unawares of a listeria outbreak at a manufacturing plant that followed years of food safety problems.

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“People would like to hear your story when you’re more senior in your career. There are so many wonderful opportunities (to serve as a director). Ask yourself, ‘Where would you feel most comfortable?’”

– Semahat Demir, Ph.D., board president, Science Heroes Association

Lessons in making a difference

Three women who aren’t engineers said their board experiences offer lessons for other women — or anyone in the minority — in making a difference.

Carla Mashinski, who has more than 35 years’ experience in finance in the energy industry, says she received a phone call asking her to interview for a board seat just two weeks after she started talking to others about her interest in sitting on a company board. Her advice: Let people know you’re looking.

“I had indicated to my peers, recruiters, and others in my network that I was interested in getting on a public company board,” said Mashinski, chief financial and administrative officer for Cameron LNG.

In 2015, Mashinski became the first and only woman on her first board, for Unit Corp., a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based company that contracts to drill onshore oil and natural gas wells, and develops, acquires, and produces oil and natural gas properties. She now serves as an independent board member of Dallas-based Primoris Services Corp., one of the country’s largest specialty contractors that focuses on pipelines for water, wastewater, and natural gas.

Mashinski said she immediately realized that the other board members — with the exception of an older white man and an African American man — had known one another for a long time.

“They were all very cordial and nice to me,” she said. “But I had to take the time to understand the board dynamics and who the influencers were. I’d have conversations outside the boardroom with them to express my opinion.”

Mashinski has now served on three boards in the past six years, and wrote about how women need to listen as well as speak in her article “Seizing the Opportunity to Change Board Culture” in Corporate Board Member magazine.

“To use our voice means we need to be educated and learn as much about the company, its competitors, the outside risks and opportunities, and any new regulations that could impact the industry. I would be very well prepared and ask what I believed were intelligent questions. I gained [the male board members’] respect.”

– Carla Mashinski, chief financial and administrative officer, Cameron LNG

She also takes seriously the duty to influence other board members to voice their thoughts.

“I find it helpful to share relevant articles and information with other directors prior to the meetings,” Mashinski said. “It encourages the whole board to think about the subject and develop their opinions, which they should then be encouraged to share at meetings. Then, embrace the diverse thoughts.”

Dambisa Moyo, Ph.D., a Zambian-born global economist, veteran board member, and author of How Boards Work: And How They Can Work Better in a Chaotic World, said it’s vitally important that women understand that corporate boards are a business.

“We have a job to do,” she said. “As we think about being part of these corporations, it’s important to lead with our competence and our skill set. Being a woman or a minority will likely get you short-listed as a potential board member, but it’s not itself necessarily going to get you the job.”

Dr. Moyo said one reason she wrote her latest book is to help people considering “leaning in” to corporate board work to understand what companies do, as well as board structure and mandates.

“How does the company make money? What is its business model? How does it think about itself being a good citizen?” she said. “It’s important for any candidate to understand these areas very clearly.

“A board is usually 12 people,” Dr. Moyo said. “It’s like a sports team. It has to work together.”

Dr. Moyo, the Zambian-born global economist, said the most effective board she’s been a member of has the following best practices:

  • Exercise good judgment. “That’s not to say people’s views aren’t colored by their past or their background,” she said.
  • Recognize that decisions are complicated and often have trade-offs.
  • Don’t just show up with problems. Think in terms of, given these scenarios, here are some answers. “Most of the time, we knew what the general issues were,” she said. “It’s critical to not be seen as someone who is always ‘glass half empty.’”
  • Remain heavily engaged in what’s going on around the world. “Boards and executive leaders aren’t looking for one ideological answer,” Dr. Moyo said. “It’s about checking and challenging — management is not our friend. We sometimes have to fire the CEO. It’s about adding value and being constructive.”

Selena Rezvani, a leadership and inclusion consultant and author of PushBack: How Smart Women Ask — And Stand Up — For What They Want, said she advises women considering board membership:

  • Don’t tell yourself no before they do. Don’t tell yourself you’re not qualified, degreed, or experienced enough. Lots of organizations want up-and-comers.
  • Help people see you as a go-to in your niche. Write articles, speak at conferences. Be easy to see. Develop expertise in your niche.
  • Look for opportunities to get hands-on experience with fundraising and financials. That can be through trustee or voluntary roles. Consider bartering to advise a small startup.
  • Articulate what you want.
  • Be ready to talk about your greatest hits. Be the world’s foremost expert on your value and your unique gift to a particular board.
  • Try to find a group that resonates with you, whether it’s a service or a product or the cause or the values.

On the other hand, Rezvani said it’s important to figure out when to say no. Her red flags include:

  • A values mismatch. Maybe it’s just basic decency and kindness. Or that you pick up on dishonesty.
  • If you experience or observe microaggressions. That could mean feeling constantly stereotyped or being taunted or the subject of unwelcome jokes or feeling cut down or diminished.
  • If you perceive you’re undervalued. You’re in a position of needing to convince everyone of your dedication and intelligence. “If you’re sensing this, I would think twice,” she said.