U.S. Lags Far Behind Europe In Gender Diversity On Corporate Boards

A new report from GMI Ratings on the percent of corporate boards that have women members shows that global progress is moving at a crawl. The Women on Boards 2013 survey looked at 5,977 companies in 45 countries and found that women hold 11 percent of board seats, up a mere 0.5 percent from a year ago and just 1.7 percent over the last five.

But the report did find a bright spot: Europe leads the trend, with far higher percentages of women on boards. In fact, Europe accounts for more than half of the female directors added to boards between 2009 and 2013. The report chalks this up to legal mandates requiring diversity:

Leading the globe on gender-diverse boards is Europe, where legal requirements for women’s representation exist or are being considered at both the EU level and in various countries. Norway, Sweden and Finland continue to lead the developed world in their percentage of female directors, with 36.1%, 27.0%, and 26.8%, respectively. Significant increases in women’s representation are also happening in Italy and France, following the passage of recent laws on board diversity. France now ranks 4th in the world, with 18.3% female directors. (In Spain, however, where a law exists but enforcement mechanisms are weak, much less change has occurred.)

Europe also leads in having at least three women on companies’ boards, a level at which research suggests women’s influence comes to a critical mass.

The United States, on the other hand, lags pretty far behind. While the percentage of women on boards has risen 3.3 percentage points in Nordic countries and 4 points in the rest of developed Europe since 2009, it has only risen by 1.9 points in the U.S. Rather than mandating quotas for the inclusion of women on boards as has been done in Europe, the U.S. relies more on “investor pressure and voluntary change over legislative mandates,” the report noted.

The impact of diversity goes beyond inclusion. Research has shown that companies with gender diversity on their boards significantly outperform those that don’t. Diversity overall has been a boon for the economy: As much as 20 percent of U.S. growth in productivity over the past half century can be attributed to the inclusion of women and other marginalized groups in the labor force. But there is still a lot of room to grow. One report found that if women’s employment levels were raised to match those of men, it would boost U.S. GDP by 5 percent.