Risk & Compliance

Goldman’s Nod to Diversity Draws Some Criticism

Might the investment bank's new policy to avoid IPOs of companies without at least one diverse board member not be quite as good as it looks?
David McCannJanuary 30, 2020
Goldman’s Nod to Diversity Draws Some Criticism

Goldman Sachs has gotten plenty of ink since last week, after CEO David Solomon said in Davos, Switzerland, that the investment bank won’t take a company public unless it has at least one woman or person of color on its board of directors.

Most of the ink was positive. But there were exceptions that provided food for thought.

Forbes senior contributor Janice Gassam wondered whether one diverse board member is enough. “The likely answer is no,” she wrote. “Having one diverse member on the board may spark feelings of tokenism.” Soloman did say, though, that the policy, scheduled to take effect this July, would stipulate two diverse board members starting in 2021.

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Gassam also criticized Solomon for saying that the focus of Goldman’s new policy would be on women. Bolstering racial and ethnic diversity should be on an equal plane, she opined.

That points at another issue some observers stressed: intersectionality.

“Goldman Sachs is setting itself up to exclude women of color, as they are oftentimes left out of women-focused initiatives,” wrote Tech Crunch senior reporter Megan Rose Dickey, herself a woman of color. “This outdated and misguided strategy, where diversity equals more (white) women, needs to be squashed.” The point is equally valid with respect to, for example, trans men, she noted.

Goldman also could be considered late to the game, with a fairly weak policy to boot. In new proxy voting guidelines that Blackrock established two years ago, it said “we would normally expect to see at least two women directors on every board” of the asset management giant’s portfolio companies.

In 2017, asset manager State Street voted against the re-election of directors at 400 companies on grounds that they failed to take steps to add women to their boards, The Wall Street Journal reported at the time.

Under a California law, by the end of this year publicly traded companies based in the state must have at least one female board member; by the end of next year, those with six or more board members must have three women.

“While the move is significant, what Solomon and Goldman are doing is not a novel idea, nor is it the best version of an outdated idea,” Dickey wrote.

Indeed, Goldman is jumping feet first into a trend that was already in runaway mode.

At the 500 largest U.S. publicly traded companies, the number of women on boards jumped dramatically last year — up 12.1% from 2018, according to a new report on board composition from governance research and consulting firm Equilar. From 2015 to 2019, the percentage of female directors swelled by 37%. Now women hold more than a quarter of the board seats at those companies.

On the other hand, over the past five years the percentage of women in board leadership positions within the 500 companies has barely budged, from 7.4% to 7.5%. Such positions include chair, non-executive chair, lead director, etc.

Women are, though, making inroads in committee chair roles. Women accounted for 23.2% of audit committee chairs in 2019, up from 17.8% in 2015. The corresponding percentages were 23.2%, up from  13.5% for compensation committee chairs, and 30.9%,  up from 20.3%, for governance committee chairs.

Also questioning Goldman’s stance was Carol Roth of Fox Business. “The reason diversity is important and valuable is because it ensures that a variety of perspectives, experiences, networks and thought processes are included in the company’s management or governance,” she wrote.

“But, what is diversity? Is it gender, skin color, sexual orientation, or other immutable characteristics, or is it diversity of opinion and experience? How is this measured and accounted for? Having diversity to check a box is in polar opposition to the intention and benefit it is supposed to create.”

One thing perhaps standing in the way of further female representation on boards is the small proportion of CEOs who are women. Directors with CEO experience are highly sought after, Equilar noted. At the end of 2019, 41.6% of male directors had such experience, compared with just 13.1% of women directors.

Twelve companies among the Equilar 500 had at least 50% female representation on their boards, led by Casey’s General Stores, Viacom, and Ulta Beauty, with 55.6% each.

The others were General Motors, Omnicon, ViacomCBS, Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, Amazon, Ascena Retail Group, JC Penney, and Progressive.