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A brilliant way to move boards beyond token diversity

sihouettes of men in board room
Reuters/Carlo Allegri
Media members are reflected in a board room table in the United Nations Secretary General’s office as they wait for a photo call at the…
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

Published Last updated

Most big companies have at least one woman on their board of directors these days. But research has shown that there needs to be a critical mass of women—at least three—in order for the rest of the board to accept them as equal members, rather than treating them as tokens or a separate women’s faction.

Thankfully, there’s a strategy that anyone who’s invited to join a board can use to ensure that it keeps building toward substantial representation of women and members of other marginalized groups, according to a recent report from executive search and consulting firm Egon Zehnder.

The idea comes courtesy of Justine Smyth, chair of the New Zealand telecommunications company Spark. Before Smyth joined the board in 2011, the report explains, she accepted the offer “on the condition that the next director would also be female.”

“Take the first appointment,” Smyth says in the report, “but be an advocate for change. I was pretty determined not to be the token woman appointment that would tick some boxes.” The report notes that Spark’s board is now 50% women, including its executive chair and CEO.

One needn’t be a woman or member of a racial or ethnic minority in order to make this kind of impact; one need only be an ally. In fact, Smyth’s condition is a variation on this summer’s move by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who stepped down from the Reddit board and requested that his replacement be a Black person. Ohanian got what he asked for: His spot was filled by Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel.

Egon Zehnder’s 2020 Global Board Diversity Tracker shows that there’s still a dearth of women and Black people on boards. The report looked at data on diversity from 1,685 companies in 44 countries, and found that only 3% of board seats globally are held by women. In the US, 26.7% of board seats are held by women, and just 4.1% of board directors in Russell 3000 companies are Black.

There is some progress, however. The largest companies in 18 of those 44 countries have an average of three or more women on its board—up from 13 countries in 2018. The report notes that of the 18 countries where it’s common to have three or more women on boards, eight have quotas or regulations of some kind in place.

More such regulations may be soon be on the way. Nasdaq announced last week that it’s looking to require all companies listed in its index to have boards that include at least one woman and at least one person who is either a member of a racial minority or identifies as LGBTQ.

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