Gender pay equity and board gender diversity are two areas of focus for both the media and investors. Lately, many large institutional investors have turned their attention to environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, where board diversity has taken center stage and questions around gender pay equity are increasing. Boards and management should proactively gain an understanding of their current position and any concerns on these fronts to avoid adverse reactions from employees and/or shareholders.
Slow progress on gender diversity in the boardroom has led many large investors to push for an increase in the number of women on boards. Several influential institutional investors such as Blackrock, State Street Global Advisors and Vanguard have added diversity stipulations to their engagement and voting policies, citing studies that link increased female representation on boards with improved shareholder returns. More specifically, these institutions may vote against, and proxy advisory firms such as Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and Glass Lewis may recommend voting against, the nominating and governance committee members if there are not a least one or two women on the board. These voting policies have been very impactful, and we have seen a dramatic increase in women serving in board roles at the largest organizations.
Compensation Advisory Partners (CAP) researched the 15 largest public diversified financial services companies in the Fortune 100 and found that approximately 50 of companies had at least three women on their board and an additional 20 percent had at least two. As a comparison, CAP researched the board composition of 90 smaller financial services companies with assets between $5 billion and $20 billion and found approximately 15 have at least three females on their board and an additional 15 have at least two. Similar to other compensation and governance trends, we expect smaller financial organizations to catch up with the increased external pressure.
In addition, initiatives such as the NYC Comptroller’s Boardroom Accountability Project 2.0, focus on enhancing disclosure of board composition through a skills matrix. California is now the first state considering a bill to require a minimum number of women on all boards of the state’s more than 400 companies. These initiatives are driving heightened attention to the diversity and competencies of the board as a whole.
While information on director composition and profiles is public, this is not the case with gender pay equity across an organization. In the U.K. there is a requirement to disclose gender pay statistics for organizations with at least 250 employees, but that does not currently exist in the U.S. Even so, we have observed some institutional investors use shareholder proposals to pressure large organizations to provide public reports on gender pay.
Several financial institutions have been under scrutiny for a lack of female representation in senior roles despite a majority of their employees being female. Unlike the U.K., where all employees must be included in the sample, shareholder proposals in the U.S. focus on a comparison of “like-for-like jobs.” Over the last three years, companies recommended shareholders vote against the proposal, and support averaged around 15 percent. Only 5 proposals (compared to 14 in 2017) have gone to a vote in 2018, none at financial services companies (compared to 7 in 2017), since several large financial organizations such as Citigroup, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Wells Fargo & Co. were able to have these requests withdrawn from their annual proxy statement and in exchange agreed to publish their gender pay. In all cases, the reports have shown almost no gap, but the approach by company can vary.
These two movements have put a spotlight on the underlying issue of equal representation in the boardroom and pay equality across organizations. The push for board equality has already resulted in progress especially at larger organizations. Boards are reviewing nominating and governance committee charters and adopting policies to promote diversity in the board recruitment process. On the gender pay equity front, even though disclosure is not required in the U.S., momentum and pressure are building from institutional investors for companies to disclose gender pay gaps.
We expect boards of all companies to start asking management if a gender pay gap exists, and what they should be doing to address any gaps that do exist. Conversations on both these topics should be an agenda item in all boardrooms today.