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(CNN Business) —  

When it comes to getting women in the boardroom, we’re finally seeing some signs of progress.

In 2017, women took 38% of new seats on Fortune 500 company boards, according to a recent study from Heidrick & Struggles.

And a new California state law requires publicly-traded companies to place one or more women on their boards by the end of 2019, or face a penalty.

Executive Brief

  • Women still account for only a small minority of overall board seats in large US companies.
  • Some businesses cite a lack of candidates as an excuse for not hiring more female board members.
  • Executive search firms can play a powerful role in getting women on boards.

But women still account for only a small minority of overall board seats in large US companies.

So how do more companies increase gender diversity on their boards?

Find the right people

Some businesses cite a lack of candidates as an excuse for not hiring more female board members. One recent study quoted British corporate leaders who claimed “‘There aren’t that many women with the right credentials and depth of experience to sit on the board” and even “All the ‘good’ women have already been snapped up.”

But those companies just aren’t looking hard enough, says Stewart Landefeld, corporate partner at Perkins Coie and co-chair of OnBoarding Women, a group committed to increasing the percentage of women on boards in the Pacific northwest to 30% by 2020.

“There is no lack of candidates,” he says. “There is a lack of identifying the candidates. There’s a very, very deep pool of potential candidates.”

Another issue is that many boards still rely on personal recommendations from “the old boys’ network” to fill vacant seats.

The problem isn’t finding qualified women, says Tiffany Apczynski, vice president of public policy and social impact at Zendesk, a customer service software company with a gender-balanced board. The problem, she says, is prioritizing personal recommendations and hires from old networks over a rigorous, unbiased search.

“We never sat down and said ‘What is the step-by-step strategy we need to get more women?’” she says. “It seemed women are 51% of the population — we could find them. They’re not these unicorns we couldn’t track down.”

Keep momentum going

Executive search firms can play a powerful role in getting women on boards for companies looking to expand their networks beyond the usual candidates.

Betty Thompson, chief people officer at Booz Allen Hamilton, says an outside search helped bring in board members who otherwise might not have interviewed.

“It’s important to get outside the network that will just generate more people like the people you already have,” she says.

But research shows that simply adding one woman to a board isn’t effective. Rather, the culture shifts only if three (or more) women sit on the board together.

So after the first woman sits on the board, don’t just congratulate her and move on, Thompson says. Keep hiring.

In 2012, Booz Allen Hamilton added its first woman to the board, Joan Amble.

“We added Joan, then people saw the value of having diverse voices and perspectives, then she is looking to not be the only one, and then she wants to be in that conversation,” Thompson says.

With the addition of two female board members — both newly announced — the board at Booz Allen Hamilton is now 42% female.

Maintaining momentum requires raising the visibility of the diverse board members and communicating to all levels of the company that the search is on for more diversity, Apczynski says.

“The amount of intentionality you have to bring to it is big,” she says. “You can have a search labor on and labor on, or you can be really aggressive and have your entire board searching, your entire C-level searching.”

Keep searching

The Boardlist, a talent marketplace connecting women to open company board seats, has seen an increase in searches recently, which CEO Shannon Gordon attributes to a potential “halo effect” caused by the California legislation.

“Board seats are always opening up but there hasn’t always been a focus on placing women on boards,” she says. “We’ll maybe see a surge in the short term, but I think executive search firms will feel a greater demand for candidates beyond the sort of usual pool of women and men who have already served.”