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Women get board seats mostly when it’s required by law

California state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson authored a bill passed into law this year that will require at least one woman on boards of corporations with headquarters in the state by 2019 and three on most of those boards by 2021. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)
California state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson authored a bill passed into law this year that will require at least one woman on boards of corporations with headquarters in the state by 2019 and three on most of those boards by 2021. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)
By Jeff Green Bloomberg

Diversity advocates have been trying for two decades to sell the corporate world on gender balance in the boardroom. Maybe they should be lobbying lawmakers instead.

A new study by Egon Zehnder points out that among countries that average three or more women on large company boards – thought to be the threshold at which diversity starts to yield higher returns – all but one operate under government-mandated quota systems.

“When we look at the board seats that have turned over, only about a quarter of them are filled by women,” said Cynthia Soledad, a co-leader of the Egon Zehnder diversity council and one of the authors of the study. “It needs to be more than an intellectual exercise or a philosophical alignment that diversity is good and diversity would benefit us.”

In the U.S., big companies have on average 2.5 female directors, and representation has barely increased since 2012, Soledad said. There’s no national requirement for having women on the board, though California this year passed a law that will require at least one woman on boards with headquarters in the state by 2019 and three on most of those boards by 2021.

For boards to add more women, they’re going to have to expand the universe beyond current and former CEOs and directors, Soledad said. Some companies have been willing to appoint women who have never served on a board or been a CEO, most don’t, she said.

That rules out most women, who make up just 3.7 percent of CEOs among the 44 countries tracked in the study.

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