Monday, March 09, 2015

Women on board in Germany- two cheers!

The big news on international women's day yesterday was Germany's decision to mandate 30% of board seats on listed companies for women. One report says that the move will affect 100 listed companies. That's a small number but these are the biggest names in business, so the move is indeed significant.

The move came after it's become clear that women are heavily under-represented in top Germany companies and that the only way to get these companies to change is to shove quotas for women down their throats. Germany is only following in the footsteps of other European countries. Norway, Spain, France and Iceland all have 40% board quotas for women. Italy has a one-third quota, Belgium 30% and the Netherlands and non-binding quota of 30%. Interestingly, the UK does not have such quotas.

Gender diversity is, of course, necessary and useful. I happen to think that, by pushing gender diversity, we will be able to get diversity of other kinds- class, ethnic and professional diversity. Why? Because, it will be difficult to fill the positions with women with only a certain background or class- say, high income, corporate types. Companies will be forced to cast their nets wider and, in the process, will have to break out of the closed club from which board members now come. They will have to look for women with varying backgrounds.

How does diversity help? Well, it's established that diversity of viewpoints contributes to better decisions. Boards need this badly because today they happen to suffer from group think. It's interesting that a study , done by MSCI, has found that companies with more women on the board are less likely to be hit by scandals. As one asset manager correctly points out, this has less to do with women per se than with women bringing in diversity, a different way of looking at things:
I don’t think this is because women are inherently more ‘moral’ than men. And it’s difficult to tease out cause and effect — are better companies more likely to embrace diversity or does diverse leadership make for better companies?
What we can say with certainty is that gender diversity is a good proxy for more general cognitive diversity, and we know that cognitive diversity leads to better problem solving and outcomes.

This would be the argument for pushing for such quotas in India as well. It's shameful that companies are huffing and puffing to fill the one seat mandated for women under clause 49. Even more shameful that promoters have chosen to fill the sit by appointing their wives, mothers and daughters on to the board. This is not genuine diversity at all.

I know the I run the risk of getting lynched but I would argue for quotas for SCs/STs and OBCs as well on boards- and for the same reason, namely, that it brings in more diversity. It will also go a long way towards making companies more tuned to the bottom of the pyramid if somebody from that segment is on the board. So, you see, boardroom diversity is not about affirmative action or correcting wrongs in society. It is simply about making boards more effective.

Setting quotas is one way of getting diversity but this will be fought and resisted. Another way is to introduce proportional representation boards- allowing all stakeholders, not just the promoter or dominant shareholder, to select board members. Today's boards are stuffy, boring places where there's no genuine debate or active questioning. We need to shake them up. Setting quotas and introducing proportional representation will make boards and companies more vibrant. 

1 comment:

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