Only this company has a board that is 80% female

Charisse Jones

At a time when the lack of gender diversity on corporate boards is under the microscope, an online travel booking service says that it has become the only publicly traded U.S. company to have a board of directors that is 80% female.

That milestone for Travelzoo, a company that guides consumers to deals on travel and entertainment, stands out at a time when a board member for ride-hailing company Uber resigned just last week after making a sexist remark about women directors, and the boards of most major companies continue to lag in gender diversity.

"Having different perspectives is very important," Ralph Bartel, founder and chairman of Travelzoo said in a statement. "I find it disconcerting that only five of more than 4,000 U.S. listed companies have 60% or more female board members ."

Equilar, a firm that provides research on executives including a gender diversity index, says that among the roughly 4,400 businesses that it tracks each year, Travelzoo's board has the highest ratio of women to men. Among all companies in Equilar's database, only 23 have boards that are at least half female. Four -- Tootsie Roll Industries, Tri-Continental Corporation, American Water Works Company, and Connecticut Water Service -- follow Travelzoo with the number of women on their boards topping 60%.

As of March 31, more than one in five  of the companies listed on the Russell 3,000, which is comprised of the nation's largest publicly traded businesses, had no women at all on their boards, Equilar says.

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Obstacles to achieving gender parity were on sharp display last Tuesday when Uber board member David Bonderman uttered what many perceived to be a sexist remark at a meeting convened to address that company's efforts to change a toxic culture that has included allegations of sexism.

When Arianna Huffington, Uber's sole female voting board member, spoke of the hiring of a second female director , Nestlé SA executive Wan Ling Martello, she noted that data shows the presence of one female board member increases the likelihood of another. Bonderman,  chairman of the private equity firm TPG, then responded that "actually what it shows is that it is much more likely to be more talking."

Amid a deluge of criticism, Bonderman said hours later that he would resign.

At Travelzoo, shareholders vote to reappoint or select new board members once a year, and the most recent meeting on May 22 led to four of the five board members being female. Prior to that election, the board had seven members, split between four men and three women.

The new make-up was more the result of a desire to pick the best candidates than a goal of meeting a particular quota, says Beatrice Tarka, a Travelzoo board member since 2015.

"This is something that grew organically,'' says Tarka, the CEO of Mobissimo, another online travel search engine. "It happens that we had excellent candidates that also happened to be female, and once the vote happened, we realized we'd have four women on the board  . . . It sends a great message to our users, and also to the world, that it's actually possible.''

But while skill and experience mattered most, Tarka noted that Travelzoo's shareholders are progressive in their thinking, and also recognize the particular perspective women directors can bring to a company whose clientele is roughly 64% female.

"We happen to be experts in general marketing, and because we also are female, we may understand certain ways of communicating,'' she says.

With little turnover on many corporate boards, the number of open seats that can be filled by diverse candidates tends to be slim, says Belen Gomez, senior director, research and board services for Equilar. Companies also tend to favor current or former CEOs to fill director positions, shutting out women and people of color who are less likely to have served at that level.

"There is no shortage of qualified women or minorities available and interested in serving on boards,'' Gomez says. "However, if boards only look for experience at a particular title level, they are eliminating an entire pool of candidates who could be just as well qualified with different skill sets and experiences.''