President of the Global Summit of Women, an annual international gathering of women leaders from all four corners of the world; co-chair of Corporate Women Directors International, which promotes the increased participation of women on corporate boards globally; and founder of Washington DC-based public affairs organisation Globewomen Inc., Irene Natividad has probably done more than anyone else to improve the gender balance of the boards of organisations and companies worldwide.

Here she discusses the huge steps that have been made towards improving gender parity on boards, and what is still required.

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You have done a huge amount to improve the gender and diversity balance at boardroom level across the world, what do you think still needs to be done to achieve true equality?

We need more aggressive measures, like quotas and targets. I don’t really care at this point whether it’s quotas or targets, but if you can’t quantify the percentage that we need to reach by a certain date and hold companies accountable change won’t happen.

What do you say to the people that say there aren’t enough women going into specific industries, such as the tech industry and, therefore, the pool isn’t there to draw from?

I say, did Vice President Gore have tech experience when he got on the board of Apple? There are other skills that are needed, like knowing your market, what are the needs of that market. It’s not just about the tech part, there’s also the marketing part, the consumer part, the human resources part. There are other skills. There are untapped women in Silicon Valley, for instance, who have created successful start-ups, they are not being called. The pool is there, it’s just a question of creating the demand and what things like quotas and targets do is force the demand. Until that happens you won’t have change.

By the government of California instituting a quota for all companies based in California that will have an impact on all those tech companies in Silicon Valley. There is a deadline, they have quantified how many women should be on the boards of certain companies with certain sizes of boards. That’s how you will have positive change in the tech industry.

How do you see the US differing from Europe when it comes to diversity at the very top?

I am part of something called the 30% Coalition and one of our best projects is the institutional shareholders group. Here pension funds, investment funds and private equity funds have banded together and they have written letters and approached CEOs of companies that do not have women on their boards, or only have one, and they are using their shareholder clout to demand change. That’s what works in the US. It’s ground up.

The US doesn’t have a national initiative to move the needle on women on boards, but it will be done state by state. New Jersey is considering the quota that California passed, New York is thinking of the same thing. What will not happen at the federal level will be pushed by states and these are states with lots of companies based in them. In Europe, there is a greater familiarity with relying on the government to provide laws that create change. In the US, it’s pull yourself up by your bootstraps, it’s bottom-up and that has been effective. I think the latest chart shows that 275 companies have added women to their boards as a result of this committee. When you have the biggest investment fund in the world, BlackRock, asking CEOs how diverse are their boards, you know it’s working.

More women have joined UK boards in the last few years, but a disproportionate amount are part-time non-executive directors, why do you think this is?

You want women on the executive and non-executive directorships. It’s easier, whether it’s in the UK or the US, to helicopter women into board seats, it is harder to grow them from the inside.

That is the challenge, and this is why France is now considering a quota for executive committees. They are not quotas, they are targets and there is no censure for not reaching the targets, but it’s a step in that direction. But we need more. In the 2019 CWDI [Corporate Women Directors International ] Report report we just did, we found that of the largest banks and financial services companies in the world, 24.7% of board seats are now held by women, but only 14.8% of senior executives are women, so there is a big, big, big gap.

When do you predict we will reach full gender equality?

There are companies that have reached parity in the Fortune Global 200, a lot of them are in France. France is the leader in this area. I know they have a quota, but people have surpassed the 40% quota.

And in the US, which doesn’t have a national strategy, 27% of board seats on the S&P 500 are now held by women, which is not bad. We also have five companies with female-dominated boards, and one of them is General Motors.

Globally the US leads in terms of the number of companies that are female dominated And in the S&P 500 only one company does not have a woman director. We look like laggers in comparison to Europe, but there is something afoot and it’s a combination, it’s the shareholders threats which companies seem to be more responsive to and there is the whole press about where women are because of the #metoo movement and the women’s marches.

Companies don’t want to look like the bad guys, brand equity is very important. Who wants to be besmirched because they’re not open to women?

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