How is board gender diversity progressing in 2022?
We explore how female representation in boards is tracking – and what should be prioritised to increase gender diversity in leadership.
Looking back over the last two years, the progress of board-level gender diversity has been mixed. Of the 2,887 constituents in MSCI’s All Country World index, female representation at the board level has improved – though not at a consistent rate¹. In 2019, 20% of the index’s board seats were held by women, up 2.1% from 2018 but in 2020 this rate of growth lowered again to 1.1 percent. Promisingly, despite the ongoing impacts from COVID-19, the number of board seats held by women rose again 1.6 percentage points last year. Nonetheless, global equities remain largely male dominated in leadership.
The year-over-year oscillation begs the question of how committed companies are to reaching and maintaining at least 30% women representation at board level, and eventually full gender parity, in a timely manner – Christina Milhomem, MSCI ESG Research¹.
Looking below you can see that relative to Europe and the U.S., Australia’s gender diversity remains low with just 17.1% of companies in the index with at least 30% board female representation.
Figure 1: 2021 breakdown of companies by the % of women representation on boards, by region.
Figure 1 source: MSCI ESG Research’s Women on boards – Progress Report - Christina Milhomem, November 2021.
How can Australian companies increase female board representation above the 30% target?
Chief Executive Women (CEW) is an organisation that helps to engage all levels of Australian business and government to achieve gender balance, reached through advocacy, research and programs. Its recent Meet the Moment report captured the sentiment of some of Australia’s most senior female leaders to gain insights into how they think Australia can see greater gender diversity. Members identified the five priorities for the next 12-24 months outlined below.
Graph source: Chief Executive Women Meet the Moment report, February 2022².
CEW member and Non-executive Director Nicola Evans offered an insight into why women’s economic participation and progression should be the key focus for 2022.
“Australia ranks first in the world for women’s education, and 70th for women’s economic participation. We spend significant budget on education to support a strong Australian society and a competitive global position. Although women graduate at higher numbers and with better marks than men, their participation and economics drop as soon as they move into the workforce. This is because we don’t have the systems in place to ensure they can contribute equally to the working environment,” Nicola said².
The report also explores how the care economy impacts the latter. COVID-19 highlighted that Australian women bear the load of caring duties including caring for children, the elderly, disabled or sick – often to the detriment of their economic security and career advancement. By providing further access to the care economy, this may bridge the representation gap. Examples of this include childcare reform and workplace flexibility.
How are we increasing female representation?
Achieving board gender balance is a key aim of U Ethical’s ethical investment policy. To put this in context, our Australian Equities Trust outperformed the benchmark (ASX 300 Accumulation Index) in terms of investee companies with greater than 30% female board representation. Looking at the index as a whole, only 75% of listed companies have at least 30% female representation – which is substantially reduced when looking for 50/50 ratio.
Head of ethics and impact Désirée Lucchese explains that through proxy voting and engagement activities we signal to portfolio holdings our disapproval with their performance on diversity. With direct engagement we encourage them to focus on targets and stay the course.
“It’s great to see our portfolio companies achieve above 35% and some reaching nearly 50% such as BlueScope Steel and ANZ, but more is needed. Through engagement with others we hope to see this representation rise.
“In 2021 numerous women spoke out exposing discrimination, harassment, sexism, disrespect and intimidation and Australians have started to listen. It is our hope that the Safety Respect Equity³ campaign will inspire more female leaders in Australian companies in 2022 and beyond,” Désirée said.
To learn more about what U Ethical is doing in terms of female representation in boards, or ethical investment more broadly please contact us on 1800 996 888.