Institutional Activists Try New Ways to Boost Board Diversity

April 13, 2018

With women and minorities still holding barely more than a third of public company board seats by all accounts, some institutional shareholders are withholding votes from some or all board nominees if the boards fail to meet diversity criteria, chronicles a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. One such criterion is a minimum threshold for board representation by women or people of color, currently set at 30 percent by the state pension funds of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Another is the presence of at least one woman on the board, set by the California State Teachers Retirement System and the New York State Teachers Retirement System, which will withhold votes from all board nominees at companies without women on their boards. Meanwhile, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, has revised its proxy voting guidelines to say that companies should have at least two female directors, as previously reported in The Ticker.

How to measure progress? The most detailed baseline can be seen in the 2016 Board Diversity Census of Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards, a multi-year study by the Alliance for Board Diversity. Of 5,440 board seats studied, 69.2 percent were held by white men, 10.6 percent by men of color, 16.4 percent by white women, 3.8 percent by women of color. These numbers are clearly bound to shift. The 2017 Spencer Stuart U.S. Board Index showed that, for the first time ever, just over half of incoming directors on S&P 500 boards were women or minorities.

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