SEC Chairman Calls on Companies, Shareholders to Help Increase Number of Women Directors

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By Yin Wilczek

Sept. 16 — Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Jo White Sept. 16 urged companies and shareholders to do more to increase the participation of women in boardrooms.

Companies must work harder to identify qualified women to serve on boards, White said. At the same time, shareholders and other interested stakeholders must communicate to corporations that this is an issue they consider important and that they want more information on what is being done to increase boardroom diversity, she said.

If not enough is being done, shareholders should make known what actions they want taken, White said.

The SEC chairman spoke at a Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies conference in Washington on women in the boardroom. Bloomberg was one of the event's co-sponsors.

Attendant Benefits

White told the audience that increasing academic evidence shows that women directors confer benefits, such as higher shareholder returns. She pointed, for example, to a Credit Suisse Research Institute report finding that from 2005 to 2011, companies with women on their boards had higher average returns on equity and higher net income growth.

White also cited studies showing that having at least three women directors is associated with even more positive effects. “For instance, one report found that, between 2004 and 2008, Fortune 500 companies in the top quartile of average percentage of women directors outperformed companies in the bottom quartile by 26 percent based on the return on invested capital,” she said. “Companies with three or more women board members outperformed companies with none by 60 percent.”

Meanwhile, statistics cited by White show that women still have a long way to go in terms of board representation. According to recent surveys, women occupied slightly more than 16 percent of the boardroom seats at Fortune 500 companies in 2012 and 2013, White said. About 10 percent of U.S. companies still don't have women on their boards.

Board Leadership

In terms of board leadership, recent surveys found that slightly more than 3 percent of board chairs were women and less than 10 percent of lead directors were women, White said.

White observed that women form about half of the total workforce and half of all managers. At the same time, they are receiving more than half of all bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees, and more than a third of MBAs. “We are here, and we are qualified,” she said. “There is simply no valid reason for the underrepresentation of women on corporate boards.”

White herself has forged new ground in her career. She was the first woman to serve in the influential position of U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, a position that President Clinton appointed her to in the 1990s. White also was the first woman to serve on the Nasdaq board when elected to the position in 2002.

To contact the reporter on this story: Yin Wilczek in Washington at ywilczek@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Phyllis Diamond at pdiamond@bna.com

The text of the speech is available at http://www.sec.gov/News/Speech/Detail/Speech/1370542961053#.VBhmn2PIk74.