A new study on the average representation of women on boards in Europe ranks Norway first in the Eurozone, with women comprising, on average, 38.7 percent of total board membership. Switzerland ranks dead last, with average representation of women at only 15.1 percent.
The study, “Gender Diversity on European Boards,” was published by the European Women on Boards in partnerships with Institutional Shareholder Services, and focuses on female representation in the 12 largest markets in the Eurozone; this includes 10 other companies in addition to Norway and Switzerland—in order of high to low female representation, Sweden, France, Finland, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany, and Spain. Compared to 2011, the two countries that have shown most improvement are Italy and Belgium, which were ranked last and tenth in 2011, respectively.
The study reports data on companies in the STOXX 600 index, which includes 600 large-, mid- and small-cap companies in 18 Eurozone countries. Six countries have no companies with all-male boards (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Spain, and Sweden), and the United Kingdom and France have a negligible number of all-male boards. The Netherlands and Switzerland, on the other hand, have around a fifth of companies with no female representation. The overall average proportion of women on boards has almost doubled over the five years of the study, from 13.9 percent to 25 percent. And this has led, the study notes, to a reduction in the number of men sitting on boards rather than an increase in the actual size of boards. STOXX 600 companies based in countries not included among the top 12 largest markets report an average female board membership of 13.7 percent in 2015, a figure that is well below the overall European average.
But it has been the appointment of non-executive directors (NEDs) and/or supervisory board directors that has driven this trend, not an increase in women in chair, CEO, or executive director positions. Only 3.5 percent of European CEOs in the study are women, compared with 3 percent in 2011. The percentage of female executive directors increased only slightly from 2011 to 2015, from 4 percent to 6.7 percent. Not only that, but the study found a pay gap between male and female CEOs, non-executive chairs, and NEDs, though it concludes that this is likely due to the finding that, in general, female CEOs and chairs run companies that are smaller than their male counterparts. The United Kingdom has the largest number of female CEOs and chairs (nine and six, respectively), though this is more reflective of the fact that there are more U.K. companies in the study—more than twice the number of the next country in line. The study also looks at membership of key committees, and found that, compared to average membership overall, membership of audit and remuneration committees by female directors was higher, though lower on nominating committees. Chairmanship of these committees, however, was rare.
Out of the 12 largest European markets, five have mandatory quotas on female board membership (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and Norway) and “10 have either an optional quota or a comply-or-explain best practice recommendation concerning board gender diversity.” Norway has a 40 percent quota and had this through the entire period of the study, but its proportion of women on boards is actually 38.7 percent, because the quota does not apply to employee representatives who are board members. Those companies that saw passage of legislation introducing mandatory quotas during the study period experienced the highest levels of growth in the female representation. In addition to Italy and Belgium, noted above, France also experienced a high level of growth, 16.2 percentage points, from 18.2 percent representation to 34.4 percent.
German boards did not see a significant growth in female representation, perhaps because the mandatory quota was passed in the summer of 2015, which is after most companies held their annual meetings, so it is unlikely to have had a significant impact on data in this study. The Netherlands, however, introduced a 30 percent quota in 2013. The quota, like most governance issues in the Netherlands, is based on the comply-or-explain principle and is not mandatory, and only 28 percent of Dutch companies comply. As we reported earlier, the United Kingdom has made significant progress despite having a mandatory quota (an 11 percentage point improvement in the period), though this was outpaced by Denmark, also without a quota, where representation by women rose by 12.5 percentage points. Since women have made up the largest share of newly appointed directors between 2011 and 2015, it is not surprising that their board tenure is on average about half that of men and that a higher proportion hold more than one seat on listed company boards.
The study also has a chapter outlining the “hard” and “soft” regulatory framework in each country, as well as a chapter scrutinizing the various disclosures, such as gender diversity policies and board recruitment and director selection methods, giving specific examples of each. Largely because of a provision in the U.K. corporate governance code, U.K. companies are among the best in disclosing the workings of the nomination committee; in most other countries, there is a brief explanation of which committee is responsible. And, finally, there is a table of all the data, country by country and company by company.