Women made up nearly a third of new candidates nominated to the boards of big U.S. companies this year, as directors expanded their efforts to diversify their ranks.
The rate, at 29%, marks a record high, up nine percentage points from last year and 15 points from five years ago, according to a new report from Institutional Shareholder Services, which advises big investors how to vote in corporate elections.
For some, the numbers are a sign of progress on an issue that is a benchmark of women’s status in the workplace, and one that has flared up at companies like Facebook Inc. FB +1.76%
Still, women’s advocates may feel American companies have a way to go. Four of every five corporate directors are men even at the biggest companies, and the composition of boards varies greatly, with women accounting for more than a third of the directors at companies that sell household and personal goods and barely 10% among smaller publicly traded companies, ISS said.
“Every little bit helps,” said Charlotte Laurent-Ottomane, executive director of the Thirty Percent Coalition, which seeks to increase the number of women on corporate boards. “But clearly it’s still far away from where we need to be.”
Among the companies adding women to their boards was cereal giant Kellogg Co. K -0.19% , where women hold five of 12 board seats, up from three at last year’s annual meeting. National Oilwell Varco Inc., NOV +0.71% which supplies oil-drilling equipment, now has one woman on its nine-member board, up from none in April 2013. And there is now a woman on the nine-member board of clothing retailer Quiksilver Inc., ZQK -1.58% where there were none a year earlier.
Kellogg said it’s proud of its progress on gender equity and continues to look for ways to do more. Spokesmen for the other companies couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
The board of Harsco Corp. HSC +0.14% , an industrial services company, nominated Elaine La Roche to fill a vacancy earlier this year. The election of Ms. La Roche, who is a senior adviser to China International Capital Corp. U.S., at April’s annual meeting means two of the board’s 10 seats are now held by women.
Like many companies, Harsco’s board has adopted a diversity policy that commits directors “to seeking out highly qualified women and minority candidates as well as candidates with diverse backgrounds, experiences and skills” when filling vacancies, its proxy says.
Companies the size of Harsco, which had revenues of $2.9 billion last year and has a market-capitalization of $1.8 billion, tend to have fewer women on their boards than do larger U.S. companies, ISS said.
Women made up 18.7% of board members among S&P 500 companies, up from 17.9% last year and 16.3% in 2011, ISS said. But among the 1,000 smaller companies in the S&P 1500 index, not quite 14% of directors are women. And among the smaller half of the Russell 3000 index, just 10.4% are women.
Companies selling household or personal products had the most female board members among companies in the S&P 500, at 34%, while 28% of telecom company board members were women. The figure was nearly 24% at food, beverage and tobacco companies, and just over 20% for media, insurance and utility companies.
Energy industry boards in the S&P 500 were the most male-dominated, with women holding just 14% of seats.
Banks showed the biggest improvement since 2008 in the S&P 500, with the share of board seats going to women rising by 7.1 percentage points. At auto companies and food retailers, the proportion of women on boards fell slightly.
U.S. companies generally led those in other major markets, aside from a handful of European countries that have established quotas for women. Nonetheless, other regions have posted bigger gains, ISS said.
About 18.5% of directors are women at the biggest London-traded companies, up from 15.8% last year and up from 10.4% in 2011, ISS found. Among Australia’s biggest companies, women made up 17.7% of board members, up from 14.3% last year.
Countries with recently imposed quotas posted some of the biggest gains. Women now make up 22.1% of board members at large Belgian companies, up from 10.5% in 2011, and rules require at least 33% by the end of 2016. At companies in the Italy FTSE Italia Mid Cap index, rates of women directors more than doubled, to 14.2% from 5.3%; a 2011 rule requires 33% women by 2015.
Norway, which imposed a 40% quota in 2005, continues to lead the world, with women making up 37.9% of corporate directors, up from 37.8% last year, ISS said.
By Theo Francis