LEVELLING THE PLAYING FIELD
When we met Kristen Anderson, CEO of European Women on Boards – who is from the US but based in Parma – our first question was what brought her to Italy.
The short answer is Barilla – she always worked in the food industry; she’s a chemical engineer by training. She first worked in R&D for Kraft for many years, including in Melbourne and later Munich. When Coca Cola was investing in building a new, state-of the art Technology Center, they approached Kristen and her husband to manage the $30+ million project so they decided to move to Shanghai for this once in a lifetime opportunity, where a recruiter found her – and that’s when Kristen joined Barilla in 2010 to run part of their research group in Parma.
In 2013, the then new CEO Claudio Colzani, together with chairman Guido Barilla, decided the company needed to focus more on D&I. They formed a D&I Board, composed of internal employees and external experts, and created a Chief Diversity Officer role reporting directly to the CEO. Kristen was invited to be on the board and eventually became Chief Diversity Officer in 2017. She stayed in the role until 2021, when she passed the role to the next CDO.
So, what led her to European Women on Boards? In May 2020, during lockdown, Kristen received a newsletter from the Italian gender equality organisation ValoreD, which included a mention of EWOB’s courses. Intrigued, she applied and was accepted into their C-Level Programme for the autumn of 2020. “I liked them so much that, when they had a call for more volunteers at the beginning of 2021, I volunteered for one of the Committee Chair positions and was elected to their board. Then in September of 2022 I was elected as their first CEO.”
EWOB is a 10-year-old pan-European non-profit organisation. It was formed after the EU Women on Boards Directive was rejected by some member states, claiming that this work could be done voluntarily. Other member states, such as France, the UK and Italy, approved their own legislations. However, associations like Valore D in Italy decided that there was also a need for a European umbrella association that could eventually help get the EU Directive passed.
The objective, explains Kristen, “is to have more gender equality in decision-making in corporate leadership. We focus particularly on the board and the C-suite”.She points out. “We’re called EWOB but we also support women whose next step is the C-suite as well as women from non-European countries. It’s not about putting unqualified women in the boardroom” she stresses, “but about levelling the playing field.”
“The EU Directive was finally adopted last November. By July 2026, all publicly listed companies in the EU will need to have 40% minimum non-executive directors of the under-represented sex on their boards (or 33 % for all types of directors). Italy, Kristen points out, had already passed its own legislation, so it’s at 36%, well on its way towards meeting the target.”
EWOB tracked the data on countries with and without their own regulations, and it shows that countries without legislation made little to no progress in the last 10 years.
“Now that the Directive has been approved, EWOB will focus on supporting companies to implement the EU Directive by helping them find talented women.”
To do that, EWOB is building a thousand-women talent pool of senior leaders. They also offer women training to enhance their skills and highlight their key competencies, such as their flagship C-Level Program.
In September 2022 they launched a Board Readiness Program, and they also offer a Cross-Border Mentoring Program that matches senior-level women with more senior-level men or women, to help women achieve their career aspirations. Women and men can also join as individual members, to participate in virtual and in-person events, access exclusive board opportunities and network with other senior leaders. EWOB members also benefit from exclusive discounts when joining the organisation’s partner associations.
EWOB is also always looking for male members and allies. Kristen adds “Our core mission is to support gender diversity and equality, but we also want to ensure that diversity is considered and represented in all its forms. We just relaunched our advisory board and you’ll see the members on the website-50% men/50% women-plus we were conscious about including all diversities.”
The organisation doesn’t have many members from Eastern European countries and members from different race/ethnicities, and that is something they hope will change: “We want much more cultural and ethnic diversity in our membership, as well as in our programmes.”
EWOB, Kristen concludes, is different from other organisations she’s been involved in, as it’s a particularly welcoming and supportive group. The men and women who join EWOB are very like-minded; you don’t join EWOB if you don’t believe in gender equality in decision-making – and in levelling the playing field.