Disney elects first female chair, US board diversity grows

By Kate Birch
Susan Arnold made chair of Walt Disney, the first time a woman has held this role in the firm’s 98-year history, as US board diversity increases

Walt Disney has elected a woman to chair its board, marking the first time in the entertainment giant’s 98-year history a woman has held the role.

Susan Arnold, 67, will succeed the current chairman of the board and former CEO Bob Iger, who stepped down as chief executive in 2020 and is set to leave the company altogether by the end of 2021.

Already a Disney board member, having served for the past 14 years, Susan Arnold has a wealth of leadership experience under her executive belt serving in senior roles at some of the biggest companies in the US.

According to Iger "Susan is an incredibly esteemed executive whose wealth of experience, unwavering integrity, and expert judgment have been invaluable to the company since she first joined the Board in 2007,” said Iger in a statement released by Disney.

How did Susan Arnold get there?

A veteran of corporate America, Susan has extensive executive experience, as well as vast public-company board experience, and in particular an in-depth knowledge of brand management and marketing, environmental sustainability, product and business development, international consumer markets, finance and executive and risk management. 

As operating executive of equity investment firm The Carlyle Group for the last eight years, Susan provided investment advice as well as operational and marketing strategies before taking her strategic and operational experience in the consumer space to P&G, where she continued to create value in the company’s existing portfolio and make new investments.

She spent a decade at the consumer goods giant and is credited with helping to establish the firm as one of the world’s leading beauty companies. Not only did she run the firm’s beauty and feminine-care businesses for many years, but she subsequently served as president of the company’s global business unit, where she had overall responsibility for P&G’s US$80bn business and 300 brands. She was also instrumental in embedding sustainability into P&G products and operations.

Prior to this, Susan was a director of McDonald’s Corp for eight years, and a director of NBTY, Inc for four years.

She has served on a number of boards – the Disney board for 14 years, most recently as independent lead director since 2018; a board director for McDonald’s Corporation for eight years; and vice chair at P&G. 

She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh.

Board diversity increasing but still showing slow progress

This appointment comes hot on the heels of a study that shows an improvement in board diversity across Fortune 500 board representation.

The number of fortune 500 companies with over 40% diversity on their boards is nearly four times higher than it was 2010, according to a study published by the Alliance for Board Diversity and Deloitte in July 2021.

In particular, white women made the largest percentage increase in board seats gained in both the Fortune 100 and Fortune 500, larger than any other group or gender, a gain of 15% and 21% in the Fortune 100 and 500, respectively.

Whilst there is certainly progress, the rate of progress remains slow with boards continuing to be predominantly male and white. The average growth for minority representation from 2004 to 2020 is at less than 0.5% per year, which means at the current rate, it will take until 2074 before the number of Fortune 500 board seats held by women and minorities reach the desired 40% board representation goal set by the ABD.

It also means that not a single Fortune 500 boardroom is representative of the population of the US.

“While we applaud the progress that businesses have made in increasing board diversity, we need to ensure representation is holistic and inclusive for all—not just for one segment of an underrepresented population,” says Linda Akutagawa, chair for the Alliance for Board Diversity and president and CEO, LEAP (Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics).

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