We believe that companies have a responsibility to manage risks and opportunities related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
To understand market-specific challenges and equip companies with best practices for diversifying boards, we recently conducted an engagement campaign with portfolio companies in markets that have relatively high or low representation of women directors compared to their economic and regional peers. What follows are insights and best practices identified in these engagements.
Through our conversations with portfolio companies, we learned about challenges that boards encounter when recruiting women directors. For example, some companies described how regulatory requirements to diversify boards have led to an increased demand for a limited pool of qualified local director candidates who are women. We have observed that, in response to these challenges, boards have implemented a variety of practices, including:
State Street Global Advisors encourages greater board diversity through engagements with portfolio companies and through our proxy votes. As described in our Guidance on Diversity Disclosures and Practices, we expect all portfolio companies across the globe to have at least one woman director on their boards. Since the launch of our Fearless Girl campaign in 2017, 948 (more than 60%) of the 1,548 companies we identified in major indices with all-male boards have added at least one woman director.1
However, some portfolio companies have not made sufficient progress toward our expectations. We recently conducted a proactive engagement campaign on this topic with portfolio companies in markets across the world. We spoke to companies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, as detailed in our recent paper, as well as to companies in six other markets that have either relatively high or low board gender diversity levels compared to their economic and regional peers.2 These markets included:
We reached out to both leaders and laggards within each market, as measured by the percentage of women directors on the board. Our engagements were primarily with leaders in the six target markets, as they tended to be more responsive and showed interest in learning about investor expectations and sharing best practices. (Please see the Appendix for the list of companies engaged.)
What follows are best practices surfaced in our engagements with companies in the markets mentioned above.
Leading companies we spoke with genuinely believe that having gender diversity on the board is a good corporate governance practice. In comparison, we observed that most laggards view diversity as an burdensome requirement from regulators and the investment community, as an inconvenient “issue” they need to resolve. Leaders think inclusiveness in the search process ensures fairness and provides access to a larger pool of qualified candidates, whereas most laggards appear to perceive the consideration of gender diversity as something that could compromise board quality and disturb the status quo.
We saw that a fundamental belief in the benefits of diversity can underpin market leaders’ success. As they approach diversity efforts with careful planning and thoughtful execution, they attract qualified women candidates who are highly sought after, particularly in markets that have a limited pool of available women candidates given increasing regulatory requirements regarding diversity.4
In order to demonstrate their commitment to board gender diversity, many leaders published board diversity policies that outlined diversity-related practices, quantitative goals, and governance surrounding the recruitment process. This transparency demonstrates the company’s commitment to diversity and helps attract women director candidates. For example, Fortis Inc., a Canadian utilities company, had key stakeholders physically sign a pledge to the firm’s commitment to diversity, reinforcing the company’s belief that diversity is a “collective, important commitment.”
These strong commitments create a self-fulfilling prophecy that confirms leading companies’ beliefs in the value of diversity. On the other hand, laggards’ reluctance discourages them from devoting sufficient resources to recruiting qualified women candidates, and they are thus unable to realize the benefits of board diversity, reinforcing their negative view.
Leaders on board gender diversity avoid taking shortcuts and do not bring in women directors only to boost the gender diversity of the board. Instead, they rigorously consider the suitability of the candidate’s background and experiences for the board and the development of the firm. As they aim for the right mix of knowledge, skillsets and experience on the board, leaders carefully plan for the right board composition to effectively monitor and manage potential future risks that arise for their businesses. For example, CLP Holdings Ltd., a Hong Kong utilities company, established a forward-looking and dynamic planning process to map out the expertise and skillsets needed on the board to help the firm navigate emerging trends. The board monitors market developments, forecasts future challenges the firm might encounter and identifies relevant criteria for director candidates. Such thoughtful planning helps companies bring in different perspectives needed to strengthen board oversight in a rapidly evolving marketplace.
With specific criteria established during the planning phase, leaders perform inclusive director searches. They consider candidates of different gender, professional and cultural backgrounds, instead of relying on existing directors’ personal networks, such as their “golf buddies,” as one Hong Kong company described, or their “hockey team,” as one Canadian company put it. Most leaders have observed that it was not difficult to find qualified women candidates in their region – they simply needed to cast a wider net. They took some of the following approaches to diversifying their candidate pools:
Many leaders increase the diversity of their boards by refreshing the board more often. In markets that tend to have long board tenures and/or founders on boards, some leaders have established limitations on director age and tenure to ensure that new perspectives are added to the board regularly. This approach is particularly impactful in markets where many public companies started out as family businesses, where the lack of gender diversity can be partly attributed to the historically paternalistic and hierarchical family corporate culture. Refreshing the board in these cases can allow a new generation of directors to serve that might have a greater appreciation for the value of diversity, as we saw at one majority family-owned business in Mexico, for example.
Many leading companies actively participate in initiatives such as The 30% Club and other regional gender diversity organizations, which often have diversity goals that are more aggressive than local regulatory requirements. We also observed that some market leaders implement internal accountability measures. For example, Grupo Argos SA, a Colombian materials company, measures whether the board’s “composition guarantees diversity of knowledge, skills, and opinions” in its annual assessment.
A diverse board is not just about the numbers, but also about leveraging the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds to strengthen oversight of the company’s long-term business strategy. Fortis, Inc. described how a diverse board requires the chairperson to proactively cultivate an inclusive environment for all candidates to confidently share their perspectives. Several market leaders shared that their chairs are learning to navigate a more diverse board dynamic than in the past when the directors were more homogenous. For example, FIBRA Macquarie shared that the chair of the board sometimes explicitly states that “this is a safe environment” at the beginning of meetings to encourage directors to voice their opinions. Some leading boards also implement ongoing external board reviews that provide them with helpful feedback on inclusion and empowerment within the boardroom.
Many leaders onboard women directors effectively and thoughtfully by bringing them up to speed on the key issues the firm is facing. CLP Holdings Ltd. also suggested that women board members should have defined roles on board committees to deepen their leadership and help them better understand the business, making their opinions more valuable and respected. Parkway Life REIT, based in Singapore, also shared that when the candidate search process is rigorous, a new director’s expertise will help them establish a positive reputation in the boardroom.
In addition to the insights for boards outlined above, we also gathered insights for emerging directors from the Council for Board Diversity (CBD), an organization in Singapore that promotes gender diversity on boards:
Develop board experience outside the private sector
Improve visibility through sponsorship
We remain focused on our fiduciary duty to maximize the long-term risk-adjusted returns of our clients’ investments. We believe that gender diversity on boards promotes a diversity of perspectives and experiences that can drive the long-term success of a firm. Please reach out to our Asset Stewardship team at GovernanceTeam@ssga.com as we look forward to engaging with you on this important topic.
Appendix A: Companies and NGOs Engaged as Part of Targeted Gender Diversity Campaign
|Korean Air Lines Co., Ltd||South Korea||Transportation|
|JNBY Design Limited||Hong Kong||Consumer Durables & Apparel|
|CLP Holdings Ltd.||Hong Kong||Utilities|
|CSPC Pharmaceutical Group Ltd.||Hong Kong||Pharmaceuticals, Biotechnology & Life Sciences|
|Bank of China Ltd.||Hong Kong||Banks|
|Parkway Life Real Estate Investment Trust||Singapore||Real Estate|
|NetLink NBN Trust||Singapore||Telecommunication Services|
|StarHub Ltd.||Singapore||Telecommunication Services|
|Venture Corporation Limited||Singapore||Technology Hardware & Equipment|
|Council for Board Diversity||Singapore||NGO|
|Saputo Inc.||Canada||Food, Beverage & Tobacco|
|Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste SA de CV||Mexico||Transportation|
|Orbia Advance Corp. SAB de CV||Mexico||Materials|
|Fibra Uno Administracion SA de CV||Mexico||Real Estate|
|FIBRA Macquarie Mexico||Mexico||Real Estate|
|Grupo Argos SA||Colombia||Materials|
1 State Street Global Advisors, as of February 2022.
2 Source: State Street Global Advisors’ Research as of August 2021. Analysis is limited to the availability of data.
3 Research suggests that 30% representation is the critical mass at which minority voices become heard.
4 No More ‘Single Gender’ Boards for Hong Kong-Listed Issuers by December 2024 | Perspectives & Events | Mayer Brown
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