Talking Too Much About Board Diversity

A backlash has emerged in response to diversity and inclusion initiatives.

In the past several years, activists, institutional investors and some companies — including banks — have advocated for increased diversity and inclusion on their boards and throughout their firms. These groups believe that a diversity of race, gender, age and opinion is good for business and, ultimately, for shareholders.

But two recent studies draw attention to a burgeoning backlash to these efforts. Whether from message fatigue or concern about the board’s focus, companies may need to be mindful about the promotion and communication of their D&I efforts.

Director support to increase gender and racial diversity in the boardroom fell for the first time since 2013 in PwC’s 2019 governance survey. Thirty-eight percent of directors said gender diversity was very important in 2019, down from 46% in 2018. Those who said racial and ethnic diversity was very important fell to 26%, down from 34% the year prior.

Directors seem to be fatiguing of these messages, says Paula Loop, leader of PwC’s Governance Insights Center, who adds she was surprised at the recent trend.

“The way that we rationalized it is that it appears that directors have heard the message and they’re trying to acknowledge that,” she says.

Respondents to PwC’s survey acknowledged that diversity has added value to their discussions and decisions, Loop says, and that it increasingly makes sense from a business perspective. This finding is supported more broadly: Bank Director’s 2018 Compensation Survey found that 87% of respondents “personally believe” that board diversity, either through age, race or gender, has a positive impact on the bank’s performance.

“We have to remember, especially when you’re thinking about boards, they … don’t move necessary as quickly as one might think,” Loop says. “I feel like we’re in an evolution — but there’s been a lot in the last couple of years.”

Interestingly, PwC observed different responses to the survey based on the gender of respondents. A higher percentage of female directors reported that gender and racial/ethnic diversity on the board was “very important.” Male directors were less inclined to report seeing evidence of the benefits of diversity, and more than half agreed that diversity efforts “are driven by political correctness.”

Male directors were three times as likely as a female director to assert that investors “devote too much attention” to both gender and racial/ethnic diversity. Overall, 63% of directors believe investors are too focused on gender diversity, up from 35% in 2018; 58% report the same when it comes to racial/ethnic diversity, up from 33%.

The different responses along gender lines demonstrates why diversity matters, Loop says. The report shows that gender-diverse slate of directors do have a “different emphasis or different way of thinking.”

“It validates why it’s good to have a diverse group of people in a room when you have a conversation about an important issue,” she says.

But even if a bank makes headway on increasing the gender diversity on its board, there is still another group to think about: shareholders. A recent study found that companies that appoint women to the board experience a decline in their share price for two years after the appointment. The study looked at more than 1,600 U.S. companies between 1998 and 2011.

“Investors seem to be penalizing, rather than rewarding, companies that strive to be more inclusive,” wrote INSEAD researchers Isabelle Solal and Kaisa Snellman in a November 2019 Harvard Business Review article about their study.

What we think is happening is that investors believe that firms who choose to appoint women are firms who care more about diversity than about maximizing shareholder value,” writes Solal, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Stone Centre for the Study of Wealth Inequality at INSEAD, in an email interview.

In subsequent research, they found that investors view appointments of female directors with a company’s “diversity motivation.” The association is “not that surprising,” she writes, given that “almost all” press releases feature the gender of the appointee when that person is a woman, and will often include other references to diversity.

“Gender is never mentioned when the director is a man,” she writes.

Solal says that companies should still appoint women to their boards, especially given that the shareholder skepticism dissipates in two years. But companies should be mindful that overemphasizing a director’s gender or diversity may be unhelpful, and instead highlight the “skills and qualifications of their candidates, regardless of their gender.”

Two-Thirds of Bank Directors Are Worried About the Same Thing


risk-6-12-19.pngAt around a quarter to seven o’clock on the evening of Saturday, May 11, firefighters showed up at Enloe State Bank in Cooper, Texas, to find a stack of papers on fire on the conference room table.

“We believe it is suspicious,” said the sheriff, “but we don’t have any more information at this point.” Three weeks later, regulators seized the bank “due to insider abuse and fraud by former officers,” according to Texas Banking Commissioner Charles Cooper.

It’s fair to say that Enloe State Bank is an outlier. It was the first bank to fail in a year and a half, in fact. And one can’t help but wonder what would lead someone to set papers ablaze on a conference room table.

Yet, incidents like this are important for bank executives and directors to register, because they underscore the importance of proactive oversight by a bank’s board—especially the audit and risk committees.

“The essence of the audit committee’s responsibilities is protecting the bank,” said Derrick Hong, the chief audit executive at Pacific Premier Bank, at Bank Director’s 2019 Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference taking place in Chicago this week. “There are so many pitfalls and risks that could potentially take down a bank, so focusing on those things is the key responsibility of the audit committee.”

Admittedly, it seems like an odd time to worry about risk.

Bank capital levels have never been stronger or of higher quality, noted Steven Hovde, chairman and CEO of Hovde Group. Net charge-offs are lower across the industry than they’ve been in decades. And tax reform has catalyzed profitability. Despite narrow lending margins and subpar efficiency, the banking industry is once again earning more than 1 percent on its assets, exceeding the benchmark threshold last year for the first time since the financial crisis.

But it’s in the good times like these that banking’s troubles are sowed.

“You have to be proactive rather than reactive,” said Mike Dempsey, senior manager at Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP. This approach stems from culture, said Dempsey’s co-presenter LeAnne Staalenburg, senior vice president in charge of corporate security and risk at Capital City Bank Group.

“Culture is key,” said Stallenburg. “Having that culture spread throughout the organization is critical to having a successful risk management program.”

To be clear, the biggest threat to banks currently isn’t bad loans. Credit policy isn’t something to ignore, of course, because loan losses will climb when the cycle takes a turn for the worse. But banks have plenty of capital to absorb those losses, and memories of the last crisis are still fresh in many risk managers’ minds.

The biggest threat isn’t related to funding, either. Even though bankers are concerned about large institutions taking deposit market share as interest rates climb, 74 percent of attendees at Bank Director’s Audit & Risk Committees Conference said their institutions either maintained their existing share or gained share as rates inched higher.

Instead, according to conference attendees, the biggest threat is related to technology. When asked which categories of risk they were most concerned about, 69 percent identified cybersecurity as the No. 1 threat.

Vendor relationships only aggravate this concern. As Staalenburg and Dempsey noted in response to an attendee’s question, vendors offer another way for malicious actors to infiltrate a bank.

Even though we are in a golden age of banking, Hovde emphasized, now is not the time for a bank’s board, and particularly its audit and risk committees, to be complacent.

“Generally, we have seen that the institutions that are well run and have fewer problems are under the oversight of an engaged and well-informed board of directors,” wrote Kansas City Federal Reserve President Esther George in the Fed’s governance manual, Basics for Bank Directors. “Conversely, in cases where banks have more severe problems and recurring issues, it is not uncommon to find a disengaged board that may be struggling to understand its role and fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities.”