Corporations had ONE JOB on gender diversity. Take a guess on whether they did it.

August 16, 2013

It's no secret that women are horrendously underrepresented on corporate boards. Catalyst estimates that 16.6 percent of Fortune 500 board seats are occupied by women. Only in Finland (26.8 percent), Sweden (27 percent) and Norway (40.9 percent) do women make up more than 20 percent of boards. A recent study from Thomson Reuters analyzing 4,100 public companies from around the world found that 41 percent had no women on their boards at all, and only 17 percent had boards where over 20 percent of members were women.

In 2010, the Securities and Exchange Commission took the mildest of steps to remedy this. They adopted a new rule requiring companies to disclose, "whether diversity is a factor in considering candidates for nomination to the board of directors, how diversity is considered in that process, and how the company assesses the effectiveness of its policy for considering diversity."

So how's that working out? Surely U.S. companies are able to obey a rule that simple, right? LOL, no. A new paper by Tamara Smallman at Columbia Law finds that Fortune 50 companies (that is, the 50 biggest in the country) are doing a very poor job of complying with the rule. The paper itself has been taken down (see below) but  Bryce Covert has a good rundown of the findings:

Smallman examined proxy statements from Fortune 50 companies and found over 60 percent fail to fully comply with the requirements, meeting just one or two of the three aspects, while 10 percent didn’t mention diversity at all. Specifically, 12.5 percent contained a single statement about whether diversity was considered in the board nominating process and nearly half mentioned whether and how diversity was considered but not its effectiveness. One company, Berkshire Hathaway, explicitly rejected considering diversity for directorships. Just a quarter fully complied with the requirements by explaining whether and how it was considered as well as how effective it was, although most of them barely touched on the latter part.

Meanwhile, nearly a third of the companies say they don’t have a concrete diversity policy. And given that the SEC’s definition of diversity is vague, only 44 percent appear to take gender into consideration, while the rest rely on more abstract ideas such as backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences.

Full disclosure - Berkshire Hathaway currently has a 23.42 percent stake in the Washington Post Company. It should probably take another look at its diversity policies.

Update: Tamara Smallman emails, "My paper hasn't been taken down. Instead, the final version hasn't yet been published, so the abstract is the only thing online right now." Keep your eyes peeled!

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Neil Irwin | August 16, 2013