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Golden Girls

A study finds that women in Tennessee are vastly outnumbered by men on executive boards.

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Despite making up 48 percent of the workforce in the state, women are underrepresented in public Tennessee companies, according to a study released in September.

That report indicated that, during fiscal year 2011, women in the state filled only 9.57 percent of 554 board director positions in the state.

The "Women in Corporate Leadership Census" was published by Lipscomb University, a private college in Nashville, and sponsored by CABLE, an organization supporting professional women in Tennessee. In the census, 62 public Tennessee companies were surveyed — 40.3 percent had no women on their boards, down from 50.6 percent the previous year.

The most noteworthy find, according to the study, was the 50 percent increase in the number of corporations that had two or more female board members. In 2010, 10 companies had two or more, but in 2011, that number increased to 15.

Susan Huggins, the executive director for CABLE, was not surprised by the results, which she said were "unfortunately static" since 2006, when the organization-sponsored study began.

"Economically, it's a good decision to have a more diverse board," Huggins said. "It opens up a thought process to be more creative."

She said having a gender-diverse board has also been proven to have larger returns on equity and investments. The census cited other research, claiming companies that "promoted more women into executive and director roles earned 16 to 89 percent more profit than the median ... companies in the same industry."

Huggins said the lack of progress enables organizations like CABLE to work with others and "do more work" in Tennessee.

"We look at CABLE as a flotilla [with other organizations]," she said. "We looked at where our expertise was, and we found three things: raising awareness, educating women, and company outreach — talking to CEOs and nominating committee chairs. ... This has been our key mission over the past nine years," she said.

Women of color are more outnumbered. Out of a total 554 directors in 2011, only four were women of color. Officer positions (CEOs, CFOs, etc.) were even less diverse. Out of 413 officer positions in Tennessee, there were no women of color.

Memphis-based AutoZone and International Paper both had one female director on their nine-person boards, while FedEx Corporation had two on its 12-person board. For officers, however, International Paper had the most women — the company had four female officers out of 13 total. FedEx had one out of eight, while AutoZone had none out of its six officers.

"Three women is the tipping point," Huggins said. "It's the way board members are typically picked locally. So many boards look homogeneous [rather] than diverse."

FedEx, International Paper, and AutoZone could not be reached for comment.

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