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Study: More women on corporate boards, but gender gap persists

New research shows global disparities in number of women in corporate leadership and identifies ways to close the gap

Global corporations are increasingly electing women to their boards, according to a study published Tuesday, but it’s not happening fast enough, not all countries are experiencing a similar rate of increase, and there remains a significant disparity between men and women in such leadership positions.

Deborah Gillis, president and CEO of Catalyst, the international gender and leadership research firm behind the study, said that while there is a positive trend in the number of women elected to boards, "the current numbers are simply not good enough."

Catalyst, which once only looked at U.S. companies in the Fortune 500, has changed its research methods for 2014 to examine the S&P 500 companies and countries worldwide. With this change, it will be possible to make global comparisons on gender and leadership in the corporate world beginning next year.

This year, in the U.S., the trend is definitely on the rise. In 2014, there were 131 U.S. corporations in the S&P 500 with boards that comprised at least 25 percent women, according to Catalyst. That’s a greater number than in 2013, when Catalyst identified only 91 corporations in the Fortune 500 that met the same threshold.

As of October 2014, women held 19.2 percent of board seats at U.S. corporations listed on the S&P 500 index. Avon, Xerox, Estee Lauder, Macy’s and Proctor & Gamble led the corporate pack with each reporting more than 40 percent of their boards’ seats held by women. “Those are all household names, those are all respected companies, and in many cases corporate leaders,” said Brande Stellings, vice president of Catalyst’s corporate board services. “It’s really good to see them on that list.”

On the other end of the spectrum, 18 companies on the S&P 500 reported no women at all on their boards — including Monster Beverages, Discovery Communications and Garmin. Under Armour was also included on the list, but Stellings noted that it had recently appointed a female board member. “I think we can say that it’s heartening to see that these companies are outliers,” she said.

Still, many European countries are further ahead than the U.S. in terms of gender parity on corporate boards. In fact, some European countries have legislated for gender quotas in corporate governance, and the European Union has proposed a requirement that all corporate boards comprise 40 percent women by 2020.

In Norway, the first country to mandate that women make up at least 40 percent of corporate boards at public companies, women held 35 percent of board seats in OBX index companies in 2014, according to Catalyst. Finland, France and Sweden were close behind, with 29.9 percent, 29.7 percent, and 28.8 percent, respectively.

According to David Matsa, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who has researched how Norway’s gender quota impacts corporations there, companies with women on corporate boards do tend to hire more female executives. “That’s one indication of how these things could trickle down,” he said. “It’s another indication that women’s representation does matter, and there are real effects.”

Though effective, legislation isn’t the only way to increase gender parity on corporate boards. Stellings noted that in the U.K., which kicked off an awareness and accountability campaign in 2011 to dramatically increase the proportion of women to men on its corporate boards, the number has nearly doubled from 12.5 percent to 22.8 percent in 2014. The challenge, posed by government minister Lord Davies, is for U.K. corporations to reach the 25 percent mark by 2015. “They made it not acceptable to have zero women board directors,” Stellings said. “I think that it showed how the dynamic and the climate can change even short of legislation and regulatory reaction.”

In the Asia-Pacific region, the range of gender breakdowns was wide — women constituted 19.2 percent of board seats in Australia, but in Japan, they only made up 3.1 percent, far behind India’s 9.5 percent.

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