Disappointment is the word recently used by a commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission about the percentage of corporate directors at big U.S. public companies who are women.
The figure cited by SEC Commissioner Elisse B. Walter in a Feb. 10 speech was 15.7%. That’s the percentage of board seats held by women at Fortune 500 companies, according to the 2010 Catalyst Census.
Here is the fuller quote from Walter, who fills one of the Democratic seats of the five-person commission:
“I think it’s fair to say that there are significant challenges for those who want to see true gender diversity in corporate governance,” Walter said in the text of a speech to the DirectWomen Board Institute. “While I will not offer up a personal analysis as to why women are underrepresented on corporate boards – I’ll leave that to the experts – I can tell you that my initial reaction to the statistics is disappointment.”
An SEC-approved plan that would allow big shareholders in some circumstances to nominate their own director candidates, whose names would be carried on company supplied proxy materials, is under legal challenge. Walter said she wouldn’t comment on the rule because of the litigation but did add, “If shareholders have the right to place nominees on the company’s card, the characteristics of the nominee class will, in my view, change and expand.”
Noting that the SEC for the first time has a majority of female commissioners, Walter revealed a bit about her own professional history. “When I began my legal career, first in the private sector as a litigator, and then a corporate and securities lawyer, female attorneys were very much in the minority. My colleagues, with no malice intended, referred to me as a ‘lawyerette.’”
The debate about board diversity goes beyond the U.S. Norway, for one, mandates 40% of directors be women. Quotas were debated recently in a point-counterpoint published by Bloomberg Businessweek. Ginka Toegel, a professor at IMD Business School in Lusanne, Switzerland, wrote the following:
“Norway’s solution is a good one. Quotas facilitate a revolutionary breakthrough. So far, nothing else has worked. Why not try the Norwegian solution in the U.S., U.K. and other nations? It seems to have surprised everyone with its simplicity and effectiveness.” According to Toegel, 44% of Norwegian corporate directors are women.