The Path to Gender Diversity
May 12, 2022
The Path to Gender Diversity
May 12, 2022
As companies continue to adapt to the changed world of work caused by the global pandemic, the need to prioritize gender-focused diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies remain as important as ever. In this Q&A, Morgan Stanley Investment Management’s Seema Hingorani, Marte Borhaug and Yijia Chen share their views on the vital role gender diversity plays in companies. They discuss where progress can still be made, why they believe leadership teams should think beyond quotas, and how an engaged investor can advance a gender equality agenda.
MARTE BORHAUG (MB): It is quite simple, really. In addition to being the right thing to do, gender inclusion is good for business, which makes it good for us as investors. For many, this seems self-evidently true, but others will naturally want to see the research, of which there is plenty. For example, one of the most quoted studies, by McKinsey, finds that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams are 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile.1
As an investor, I think it’s important to understand why we see this outperformance. What are the specific drivers? There are many reasons. I will mention two here. For starters, gender diversity helps to promote innovation. A study by the Boston Consulting Group found that companies with leadership teams that have above-average diversity generate, through product innovation, revenues that are 19 percentage points superior to companies with less diverse leadership teams, and enjoy earnings, before taxes and interest, that are 9 percentage points higher.2
And it's not just earnings. According to a study by MSCI, boards with higher levels of gender diversity tend to experience fewer instances of governance-related controversies, including bribery, corruption and fraud.3
In summary, research shows that companies with above average gender representation are better able to solve problems creatively, bounce back from failings and turn challenges into opportunities. As investors, we believe these qualities make more diverse companies more attractive for investment.
YIJIA CHEN (YC): I agree, studies have shown that gender diversity is a material factor to company performance across countries and sectors. Interestingly, the McKinsey study shows that the rewards and penalties that accrue to the best and worst performers compound over time, and can lead to dramatically different long-term performance.
Echoing Marte’s points about potential drivers, we believe companies that demonstrate leading or improving DEI practices can attract and retain better talent, which promotes productivity that can help the company position better for longterm value creation. Lastly, diverse viewpoints can be additive to the decision-making process precisely because they bring in new perspectives and challenge traditional thinking.
SEEMA HINGORANI (SH): Different perspectives are particularly important for risk management, in my opinion. The global financial crisis is a case in point. Within markets, we saw a situation where the same type of people were making the same types of decisions, resulting in groupthink. When I founded Girls Who Invest, a nonprofit organization designed to bring more young women into investment management careers, the need to challenge traditional thinking, as Yijia said, was very much in my mind. In the curriculum, we teach the core finance and investment concepts that are necessary for successful internships, but we also focus on educating our scholars on market events like what happened in 2008. The idea is to make sure that these young women are well prepared to enter the industry and understand that their voices are needed at the decision-making table to help make sure that this kind of crisis does not happen again.
MB: To be blunt, no. While there are leaders doing the right thing, if all corporate leaders really understood the business case, we would see a very different reality on company boards and in senior management. Unfortunately, diversity still doesn’t seem to get the right kind of attention or be considered a business necessity.
For example, some corporate leaders argue the business case is wrong because appointing a woman to the board does not magically improve performance. Clearly, single appointments alone are unlikely to achieve such an outcome, but broader diversity within the top leadership, middle management and overall workforce will lead to different ways of thinking and ultimately in our opinion help improve performance, even if not immediately. Tackling diversity may also be difficult, as challenging traditional thinking and groupthink naturally creates discomfort. Leaders committed to DEI must be prepared to confront these growing pains.
I also believe that some corporate leaders are at risk of “gender complacency.” Companies may get to 30% or more of representation on their boards and then consider it a job well done. But we’ve still got a long way to go. If you look at most businesses, very few can claim to be at parity in representation at every level across the organization. Proclaiming the gender question resolved is a problem because, although we are on a good path, a lot of work remains to be done to ensure everyone has the same opportunity to succeed regardless of their gender.
SH: Ultimately, diversity is about making business better and not about social good. It seems that some leaders still feel obligated to prioritize diversity on moral grounds, but they should not lose sight of the fact that gender diversity can make businesses better. I’ve been encouraged by the progress that I’ve seen in the last five to 10 years, but there are still some who look at this as ticking a box and filling quotas.
For instance, we frequently see situations where a company that is eager to recruit a woman to the board only seek out candidates with prior board experience since that appears as a safer approach. As a result, we see a small pool of the same women sitting on five or more company boards, which does little to expand the opportunity set of talented and diverse female voices in the corporate sector more broadly.
YC: Understanding of the business case varies significantly across the world. We know that European countries are the leaders for gender representation in senior positions, but progress elsewhere is sometimes overlooked. In Asia, for instance, Japan lags developed markets’ peers in gender representation,4 but nascent changes are taking place. More and more, Japanese companies are making their first female board appointments. In fact, the share of Japanese companies with at least one woman on the board has increased to 88% from 67% over a three-year period.5 South Korea, meanwhile, is experiencing a similar trend. In 2019, more than 77% of companies had all-male boards. Now, it is about 41%.6
Clearly, more work remains to be done, but the trend is headed in the right direction. As the business case becomes better understood in more countries, we expect the focus to grow beyond board and executive representation to include company policies that affect gender diversity outcomes. Pay equity is an obvious one, but there are many others.
SH: Companies are improving, but can do more. Screening criteria, for instance, has historically required board candidates to have a certain level of experience, including CEO experience. However, the top ranks of companies are not very gender diverse, which can create a Catch-22 situation, wherein poor gender representation among chief executives begets poor gender representation on boards. The stringent requirements exclude many talented people with other relevant experience. A candidate with profit-and-loss responsibilities, a valuable skill in the corporate sector, for example, could be a complement to many boards, given the opportunity.
MB: There has been improvement at board level, in part because board diversity became a focus for investors and regulators. Here, the next step is to start broadening representation to include women from different backgrounds. Going forward, I expect to see more focus on executive teams, which lag behind boards. For example, female board representation is around 40% in the U.K., up from roughly 12% a decade ago.7 In contrast, at the executive level, representation has remained stubbornly low at 22% in recent years with very little improvement, and there are still companies with entirely male executive committees.
The so-called “Peter Problem” encapsulates this gender disparity well. Few people know that there are actually more CEOs named Peter leading top U.K. companies than female CEOs.8 In the U.S., a similar problem exists, with CEOs named David outnumbering total female counterparts in the S&P 500. This is clearly far away from the levels of diversity we would want to see.
YC: Companies can do more than solely targeting gender quotas, but that will require a deeper commitment and change in corporate culture. Norway is one of the countries leading the way in gender diversity. As of today, Calvert’s own research finds Norwegian large-cap companies have the highest female board representation on average among their peers.9 A recent study10 finds that mandatory quotas have been the biggest spur to progress in female board representation within Norwegian public companies, going from 6% in 2002 to 42% in 2016. However, the ripple effects have been pretty slow with public companies faring far better than their private counterparts with regards to gender equity at board level.11 This is also true for U.S. companies—nearly half of private company boards are all male, while 100% of S&P 500 companies’ boards include at least one woman.12
Anecdotal evidence shows that cultural attitudes play important roles. For instance, we have seen a number of high-profile occurrences where female CEOs are parachuted in after corporate crises, typically, DEI-related crises. Sometimes these new leaders manage to rescue the companies, while others come in too late or face internal opposition that stymies change. In the end, appointing a new CEO alone cannot change corporate culture or a company’s fortunes, if everything else remains unchanged.
SH: Developing the talent pipeline is critical. Companies have to broaden their scope for recruitment to attract candidates with different backgrounds and experiences. To reflect on our own experience at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, we have found that diversity in the workforce enhances our investment capabilities—whether that be in better understanding the end markets of a publicly traded company or helping to facilitate deal origination in private markets.
As a firm, we partner with great nonprofit organizations to help foster the next generation of talent. Girls Who Invest, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, the Toigo Foundation and the Greenwood Project are just some of the nonprofit organizations. These organizations aim to engage women early, oftentimes during high school and university, to foster that talent pipeline for our own industry.
MB: We need more initiatives designed to change not just the player but transform the game. Traditionally, diversity efforts have focused on helping the player—i.e., supporting women to develop through mentoring and training. To be clear, these initiatives can be useful steps; however, research has shown that the problem isn’t that women aren’t qualified or don’t have the right aspirations, but that leaders must also look at processes such as recruiting, interviewing and career advancement, among others, to address how we provide unseen talent an opportunity to shine. Unless we look at the rules of the game, we are not going to see the improved outcomes that diversity can bring to a company—the type of outcomes that we, as investors, are seeking.
YC: In addition to recruitment, we are seeing companies introduce workplace diversity councils and networks, not solely for gender but for all types of diversity, such as racial/ethnic, sexual orientation, gender identity, disabilities. There are also many group activities focused on intersectionality as an individual’s identity is multidimensional. With the growth in DEI efforts, it is becoming clearer that companies must commit dedicated resources. Frequently, members of the underrepresented groups will volunteer and take responsibility to change the organization’s diversity culture, a role that is in addition to their day job. It is therefore important to understand not only what these companies are doing, but also how specifically the leadership teams are supporting these actions, for example, by recognizing and compensating the time and work contributed by employees involved.
YC: At Calvert, we have always valued the power of proxy voting to hold boards accountable for their attention to diversity. While we have exercised this power for three decades, in recent years, we have placed an added emphasis on DEI to strengthen our proxy voting guidelines. For example, if a company has fewer than two women on the board, Calvert’s guidelines would direct us to vote against reelecting the board directors who serve on the nomination committee. Thus, proxy voting can act as a potent tool in directly challenging board leaders who have failed to prioritize gender diversity. In addition, for companies in the U.S., the U.K., Australia and Canada, Calvert will vote against the nominating committee at companies that have fewer than two people from racially or ethnically underrepresented groups or that are less than 40% diverse. We will also vote against the chair of certain boards that do not disclose racial diversity information.
Another important area where shareholders can advocate change is transparency. For this reason, Calvert launched a campaign to facilitate EEO-1 disclosure in July 2020. The campaign targets the largest 100 U.S. companies and advocates for the disclosure of their EEO-1 reports, which are mandatory demographic reports collected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of the U.S. government. At the beginning, only 16 companies were making their data public. We engaged the other 84 companies and, today, nearly 90 of our target companies publish the report. In fact, now, about half of S&P 500 companies disclose, demonstrating the power of engagement.
MB: As an equity investor in large public companies, it is important to evaluate every potential investee company’s DEI approach to assess the risks and identify possible areas for engagement should we invest. For example, in the recent past, we engaged with a large spirits and wine company based in Europe. Despite being a global company, with a vast geographical footprint, particularly in emerging markets, the company had an all-white European board. We saw this as an opportunity to discuss the benefits of diversity in their leadership and urged the company to diversify their board. We were pleased to see that last year the company appointed a woman of Indian heritage with business experience from Asia, including Australia, Malaysia and Myanmar. Her nomination adds a unique perspective to the board, helps broaden the company’s horizon and thinking and brings valuable business experience. These types of examples show that on a one-on-one basis, engagement can help to influence change.
Joining forces with like-minded investors can also be highly effective to compel companies to change. To this end, in the U.K., Morgan Stanley Investment Management recently joined the 30% Club Investor Group, which comprises 42 financial investors representing more than £20 trillion in assets under management. The group has engaged with U.K. companies for the last decade to improve board and executive gender representation. More recently, it has put out a race equity statement calling on companies to do more to improve race and ethnic diversity and will be engaging with investee companies to improve their DEI disclosure, strategy and outcomes. Working with groups such as these can be a powerful driver of change across a whole market or industry. We know this because we have seen it work.
SH: If we step back to think about environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing, the “E” and the “G” are often easier to measure and thus to highlight and talk about. We can count carbon reduction to assess climate impact, for example, and we can look at the proportion of women on boards when we think about corporate governance.
The “S” is more difficult to measure, but it is a large part of what we are discussing here today. How do we treat our people? How does this impact the women in our workforce?
The pandemic has brought home the importance of confronting “S” issues for corporate leaders. They have had a duty to ensure that workers are kept secure and safe. They have had to look at policies around caregiving, as it relates to childcare or even elder care, which affects the growing number of us who have aging parents. These types of “S” policies are not easy to measure, but have to be looked at and analyzed, which is what Marte, Yijia and I do as part of our jobs every day.
For firms, this is critically important right now. In the aftermath of the pandemic, fewer women are returning to the workforce relative to men, a sign of sliding backward. Returning to the points made at the beginning of our discussion around the importance of gender diversity to performance outcomes, we need to ask ourselves: “Do we really want to see women dropping out?” Of course not. In order to remain competitive, we need to be harnessing that talent. By spending more time focused on the “S” issues, I think that women, companies and investors will all be better off.
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