Compared to the progress at European companies, American businesses are slow pokes.
While there has been progress appointing women directors to U.S. corporate boardrooms, the pace of change is incredibly slow, especially compared to other developed Western economies.
The European Commission has mandated that 40% of independent board seats must be held by women by 2020. Companies based in many European countries have already made significant progress towards this goal, including France, Germany, Norway, and Spain.
Individual companies in the U.S. have also made progress. According to data from Equilar, an executive compensation and corporate governance firm, the following Fortune 500 companies have female board representation of at least 40%.
- Avon Products
- Estee Lauder
- Interpublic Group
- Procter & Gamble
The following companies have no women on the board.
- Cimarex Energy
- Fidelity National Information Services
- Monster Beverage
- Nabors Industries
The United States’ lagging performance compared to Europe suggests that quotas may actually be worth considering. Without such requirements, it’s possible that boards will simply drag their feet on making much change to their board makeup.
Such foot-dragging comes with consequences. Companies without any women on their boards are likely to be the target of shareholder protest, as diversity is an important issue for many major shareholders. On March 31, public pension funds with over $1.12 trillion in assets sent a letter to the SEC calling on it to require disclosures about directors’ gender, race, and ethnicity. The funds who signed the letter include a list of heavyweights: CALPERs, CALSTRs, and the New York City Retirement System, as well as public funds in North Carolina, Connecticut, Illinois, New York State, Ohio, and Washington State.
The SEC began to require companies to disclose the skills, experience, and attributes (SEC-speak for job qualifications) of directors starting in 2010, but the funds want diversity added to this list of disclosures. The funds claim that diverse boards can better manage risk. They cite International Monetary Fund research that identified a “high degree of groupthink” as contributing to that organization’s failure to correctly identify the risks leading up to the worldwide financial crisis.
Interpublic, one of the four largest advertising companies in the world, has made a commitment to diversity and inclusion, in the boardroom and beyond. According to Michael Roth, Interpublic’s CEO, it was clear to him when took the reins at the company 10 years ago that female customers ought to be represented on the company’s board and throughout the company’s workforce. “There was a conscious decision to increase diversity,” Roth told Fortune.
In response to a question about quotas – a requirement that a certain percentage of board seats be filled by women, a common requirement for some of Interpublic’s European peers – Roth said: “We didn’t need quotas to do what was right. On the other hand, units of the company are held accountable by senior management for high priority objectives that include diversity and inclusion.”
Nvidia did not have any women on its board, until Dawn Hudson, now chief marketing officer of the National Football League, joined in 2013. In March, the company added another female director, Persis Drell, the Dean of the School of Engineering at Stanford University. In an interview with Fortune, David Shannon, Nvidia’s Chief Administrative Officer and Company Secretary, outlined the company’s approach to board recruitment. “I believe diversity of background brings in diversity of thought to the board,” said Shannon. “For example, Dawn’s marketing expertise was invaluable as the company moves into more consumer-oriented products.”
Shannon believes that a more diverse board will help Nvidia increase its overall workforce diversity, but noted that the two goals were pursued separately. Commenting on the pension funds’ request for additional disclosures about director backgrounds, Shannon fully agreed with their usefulness and added that the company’s proxy, released on April 9 this year, included enhanced disclosures about director background and experience.
None of the companies that have zero female board directors offered a comment for this story.
By Paul Hodgson