Gayle Wilson – A Passion for Science and Education From Community to the Boardroom.
A lot has been written about the lack of women, and women leaders in the fields of science and technology.
As many seek to address this problem, the question becomes, What are the critical factors that will unleash more roles for women leaders in these fields?
Recently experts from Stanford University led a thought exercise for 240 senior leaders of a Silicon Valley technology company. They asked them to identify the most-critical factors for success at their level.
The authors suggest several distinct types of visibility, such as visibility in valued skills, visibility in assignments, and visibility in networks.
I thought of this recently as I interviewed Gayle Wilson, who serves on the board of Gilead Sciences, a research-based biopharmaceutical company that is navigating the complexities of a new era of biomedicine.
Gayle’s background in science has spanned many sectors including business, public service, and education. Her story inspires me and offers insights to women who aspire to leadership in science (and technology), and to service on boards of directors in these fields.
Gayle earned a degree in Biology from Stanford University and her love of science and education have been a constant thread in her multi-faceted career. She served as the First Lady of California from 1991 – 1999 as her husband, Pete Wilson was elected Governor.
During those years she used her platform – visibly – to promote early childhood education. She also helped establish the merit-based California State Summer School for Math and Science, known as COSMOS. Each summer this four-week residential program located on four University of California campuses serves over 700 academically talented high school students. Gayle is Chairman Emerita of COSMOS.
She also serves as a Trustee of Caltech, the California Institute of Technology and its JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) Committee.
I asked Gayle about her work and her ideas on advancing more women to the boardroom. Her responses are thought provoking and important in the conversation on how to increase board membership for women, particularly in the fields of science and technology. Read on for our interview and more.
CM: What inspired you to serve on a board?
GW: Serving on a board was a natural progression for me as I was involved in my community in San Diego, in Washington, D.C., and on the State level as First Lady. In my early 30s I had a leadership role as Treasurer of the Junior League, and I learned that if you know how the money is spent, you know what the priorities are in an organization.
Later I was appointed to a City Board right when there was a big cut in funding. With decreasing resources, it was really important to know where the money was going, and my earlier experience as Treasurer of the Junior League helped me understand the budget process.
CM: What was your biggest obstacle or setback in joining a board?
GW: It’s the Catch-22; if you haven’t served on a board, it’s hard to be invited to serve. Getting your first board seat is the key. Being asked to go on my first public board was the result of serving on the Caltech board with the chairman of Nominating and Governance of ARCO. He noticed how engaged I was, and asked me to consider serving on ARCO’s Board.
CM: Please share your best piece of advice for aspiring women board members.
GW: Be visible in your field; be part of leadership in it. If you are in finance, join your professional organization and serve in a leadership role. Be focused on your field of interest so you gain credibility and have the gravitas to add value to a board.
Let people know you are interested in being on a board. My term as a board member of ARCO concluded when BP bought the company. I was at dinner one night and mentioned to my dinner partner that I’d like to serve on another board. He took that to heart, and that’s how I became a director of Gilead. But, as these things go, it wasn’t immediate. The process took nine months, because there are usually many interviews. So be patient.
CM: What do you believe are the three most important qualities of board members?
GW: Knowledge of finance is certainly one, even if you aren’t a CPA or auditor. My background is in science, and I’ve had to work at increasing my knowledge of finance.
Be collegial; if you have a reputation for getting along with others, you’re more likely to be invited (to the table.)
CM: How does a board member, specifically a woman, know she is adding value?
GW: There are obvious and subtle ways. An obvious one is that I have a scientific background, and I’m connected – in Government and in some key science organizations.
The subtle and very important value I offer is that I have experience and wisdom; I have good intuition about people, and I often ask questions the men won’t ask.
CM: Do you have a favorite blog, publication or book that has helped you be a better leader and board member?
GW: I regularly read The Corner Office in the Sunday New York Times. It’s fascinating to discover the stories of leaders, their backgrounds, culture, how they recruit talent. Gilead encourages its board members to take advantage of Corporate Director courses, which I have done a number of times.
I also find the publications from the National Association of Corporate Directors highly useful.
CM: What is the role of the board in providing oversight and momentum in contributing to company growth?
GW: Leadership development is a key role for the Board. It’s important to get to know the Senior Management outside of the formal meetings. This can provide important insights about the company and its leadership that might not be found at the board meeting. Also, spend time at the company, be visible, visit laboratories or manufacturing facilities, so that you are knowledgeable about the company and its culture.
CM: What’s next?
GW: I continue to be active in the areas that have always interested me and where I have much experience, such as encouraging and supporting those interested in STEM fields. Contributing to higher education and public service remain important to me.
I also greatly enjoy my work on the selection committee for the GE Reagan Foundation Scholarship, plus I am fortunate to be on a Foundation Board, which keeps me in touch with the non-profit needs of Los Angeles.
Gayle offered a word of encouragement – “Every board is looking for good women directors.”
This is consistent with a recent report, by McKinsey & Company, How To Accelerate Gender Diversity on Boards. McKinsey & Company recently conducted an analysis of companies in the S&P 500 to identify top performers in board diversity, defined as those with the highest percentage of women on their boards as of August 2016. It showed that women occupied at least 33 percent of board seats among the top 50 companies (up to nearly 60 percent for the highest percentage). That means that female representation on those boards has increased on average by 24 percentage points since 2005.
The analysis generated Best Practices for companies who want to add more women to their boards – but the trend is encouraging, and affirms Gayle’s observation from her vantage point as a member of many boards.