When diversity proponents point to the low percentage of women in places like boardrooms, a common response is that qualified candidates are few and far between.
Take, for instance, a survey of CEOs conducted by TheBoardList, a marketplace that seeks to connect tech companies with potential female directors. Only half of CEOs see enough female talent available, according to the survey. Moreover, women hold just one-fifth of board seats among the S&P 500 companies, according to research group Catalyst.
To help counter misperceptions, TheBoardList on Thursday launched three initiatives, including a feature called Assisted Search, which offers extra help from a talent executive in finding candidates and going through the placement process; TheBoardList Index, which is quarterly data on the number of board seats filled by women; and the Pay It Forward Scholarship. Partnering with online survey tool Qualtrics, TheBoardList will give a scholarship to a girl from an underrepresented community every time a woman is placed on the board of a company.
The moves by TheBoardList mark the latest attempt to address the lack of female representation in the tech industry, an issue that flared up last year amid Ellen Pao's sexual discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, the harassment of female journalists and coders in the "Gamergate" controversy, and the broader recognition that the major tech players aren't particularly diverse.
For the past year, TheBoardList has not only been addressing the issue, but trying to learn more about it. Its answer to the concern that there isn't enough talent: 1,200 qualified potential board members -- all women. Forty-two percent already have board experience, and the others come with endorsements from C-level business leaders and investors.
"There's really a discovery problem and a perception of the breadth of candidates -- more than a problem in reality with whether there's a big enough pipeline of candidates," said TheBoardList founder and CEO Sukhinder Singh Cassidy.
The tool allows companies looking for female board members to search for candidates who have expertise in areas like digital media, social media, e-commerce, IT and software, who have worked in fields such as finance, growth and marketing, or who have served as CEOs.
So, why should it matter if a board includes any women?
Accounting firm Grant Thornton found that companies with diverse boards perform better than those without. Another study from Peterson Institute for International Economics found a correlation between higher profits and companies with women in executive leadership positions.
"For profitable firms, a move from no female leaders to 30 percent representation is associated with a 15 percent increase in the net revenue margin," the study said.
One reason Singh Cassidy believes that companies with more diversity on their boards perform better is because they have higher odds of representing more viewpoints.
Women "offer a perspective...that may be missing entirely," Singh Cassidy said.
Data collected by TheBoardList also highlights reasons why many women don't make it onto boards. Fifty-nine percent of CEOs surveyed said they got board referrals from investor networks and 39 percent said they used their own networks. The problem with that, Singh Cassidy said, is those networks tend to be homogeneous.
TheBoardList isn't the only organization seeking the advancement of women on boards. The Women Corporate Directors Foundation is a global community group, and 2020 Women on Boards aims to raise awareness about the issue.
Getting women onto boards is one piece of the bigger issue of diversity in tech at a time when numbers reflect low percentages of diversity in computer science programs, in technical roles and in leadership positions.
Finding board members is a "process that requires not just availability of candidates," Singh Cassidy said. "I think there's room for optimization of that entire process."