The demographic and expertise-based makeup of public company boards has come under increasing scrutiny from investors as numerous studies continue to correlate elements of diversity with improved company performance.
The National Association of Corporate Directors’ Report of the NACD 2016 Blue Ribbon Commission on Building the Strategic-Asset Board emphasized the essential task of assembling and assessing a board best fit to tackle the challenges of the constantly-changing business environment. At its core, the successful strategic-asset board is a mix of directors with diverse backgrounds who are fit to the purpose of complex oversight. And the demand for diversity is not just about market-based performance—the evidence also shows that diverse boards engage in more robust debates, make decisions that are sounder than they would be otherwise, better understand their customers, and attract higher-performing employees.
For smaller public companies in the U.S., underperformance in board diversity is even more pronounced. In November 2016, Equilar released a report revealing that small public companies lag behind S&P 500 companies when it comes to board diversity. For example, 23.3 percent of Russell 3000 companies in 2016 had all-male boards versus 1.4 percent of S&P 500 boards.
But does this study tell the whole story? Gender diversity on boards understandably receives the most attention because it’s one of the easiest metrics to quantify. However, measuring progress with the broad brush stroke of S&P 500 (or even Russell 3000) gender statistics does a disservice to the full story of diversity on a company’s board. Diversity in the boardroom best serves a corporation when it’s addressed in a holistic manner, taking into account age, experience, race, and skill sets along with gender. In fact, when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) adopted diversity disclosure rules in 2009, it allowed companies to provide their own definition of diversity.
At Nasdaq, we’ve taken a detailed look at the board composition of listed companies, including those too small to be included in much-publicized diversity studies. In doing so, we found promising signs of progress. For example, 14 Nasdaq companies have reached or exceeded gender parity in the boardroom versus five companies in the S&P 500. In 2016, 75 women were elected to a Nasdaq-listed company board for the first time. Many of these women came from outside the C-suite, recruited from non-corporate professional disciplines such as university administration, government, medicine, public education, and journalism.
We also discovered that many Nasdaq companies have compelling stories to tell with respect to board composition and their own diversity of age, gender, race, and skill sets. Unfortunately, their efforts go largely unnoticed for the simple reason that they aren’t sharing their story. Only a handful of companies highlight board composition in their proxies using charts and graphs to summarize their board profile metrics. Yet these metrics offer stakeholders valuable insights into the board’s ability to oversee and support management and its strategic plan.
At Nasdaq, we see ourselves not just as a public company, but also as a model for our nearly 3,000 listed issuers. One example of this is our 2016 Proxy Statement in which we enhanced board transparency through graphics and statistics on a variety of metrics. This data illustrates not only the gender diversity of our board, but also the diversity of skills and experience present. We believe this information is valuable for shareholders and the market and we will continue to share it.
As the head of the SEC, an agency focused on disclosure to investors, Chair Mary Jo White observed in a recent speech that “A growing number of company proxy statements have recently begun to voluntarily provide an analysis of data, accompanied by pie charts and bar graphs, to describe the state of the board’s gender, race and ethnic diversity composition, sometimes in addition to other categories… This more specific information is clearly more useful to investors.” In fact, we found a number of Nasdaq-listed companies (both small and large) that shared diversity metrics around board composition in their proxy statements in 2016. These companies include:
As companies continue to prepare for the upcoming proxy season, we encourage your board to consider simple report enhancements that increase the transparency around the diversity of boards, including disclosing not only a board member’s gender and age, but also their ethnicity, skills, and experience. Until such transparency of board composition metrics becomes the norm, the full story of corporate board diversity and the valuable insights it provides to investors will remain obscured.
Lisa Roberts is a vice president in Nasdaq’s Legal and Regulatory Group, where she co-leads the Listing Qualifications department and advises on governance matters for our issuer community. She also manages our Governance Clearinghouse website, which includes original articles on a variety of topics relevant to public companies, such as market structure, corporate sustainability, boardroom diversity, legislative advocacy, cybersecurity, and risk management. This site is available to all public companies and their advisors free of charge.