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Nasdaq Proposing Rule Requiring More Board Diversity

The Nasdaq stock exchange filed a proposal with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on Tuesday that would require all companies listed on the exchange to publicly disclose consistent, transparent diversity statistics about their board of directors.

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It would require most Nasdaq-listed companies to have, or explain why they don’t have, at least two diverse directors on their board. This includes having one board member who self-identifies as female and one who self-identifies as either an underrepresented minority or LGBTQ. Foreign companies and smaller reporting companies would receive additional flexibility.

“This is a landmark proposal that underscores the importance and value of diversity being placed in the boardroom by the investor community and exchanges," said Amy Rojik, national partner and director of BDO’s Center for Corporate Governance and Financial Reporting. "The need for diverse perspectives from the board goes beyond reputation and can be a catalyst for growth. As a result, transparency around diversity reporting is also a growing priority for stakeholders and shareholders."

BDO’s recent "Board Pulse Survey" found half of the board members polled ranked building a more diverse board/leadership team as their No. 1 long-term ESG priority.

Nasdaq is the first major exchange to pursue such a requirement, but not the first authority to pursue board diversity requirements. In September, California passed a law that will legally require public companies headquartered in the state to diversify their boards in terms of race, ethnicity and sexual and gender identity. That law requires companies to have at least one board member from an underrepresented community by the end of 2021 and at least two or three by the end of 2022.

California’s new law expands on its 2018 law, which required public companies headquartered in the state to have at least one female on their board of directors by the end of 2019. Nasdaq’s proposed requirement, if successful, will look to have the same results the original California law had.

According to The Wall Street Journal, there were 93 California-based companies in the Russell 3000 that had all-male boards when the bill was signed into law. Within a year, only 17 had no women on their boards.

During the same period, according to the WSJ, 244 California companies in the Russell 3000 have added at least one female director, and 41 companies added two. Even more surprising: More than 90% of companies in the S&P 500 now include two or more women on their boards, compared to 86% in the prior year. And last year a milestone was reached, as the last all-male board among the S&P 500 was eliminated.

Notably, for the second year in a row, California had the largest increase in companies with 20% or more of their board seats held by women. In California, 68 more companies met the 20% goal in 2019 than in 2018. According to data from Bloomberg, women “now hold 28% of all board seats at major corporations.”

By comparison, about “a dozen of the largest companies by market value in the S&P 500 Index have no Black board members,” according to Bloomberg, which also found that the number of Black corporate directors has stalled or even declined.

While roughly 10% of directors at the 200 biggest S&P 500 companies are Black, according to executive recruiting firm Spencer Stuart Inc., the percentage of Black executives joining boards in 2020 fell to 11% from 13% the year before.

Nasdaq named Adena Friedman as its CEO in 2016, which made her the first woman to lead a major U.S. exchange. In an interview on CNBC, Friedman expressed her desire for this measure to help accelerate more opportunities for other females and minorities.

“We’re taking the leadership here because there has been so little action on this front, and we do think it's an important thing for us to do, to create a more inclusive capitalist society and we think this is a step forward,” Friedman said. “But we would welcome the opportunity for the New York Stock Exchange and for the SEC to take an active role here as well.”

Companies that do not meet the diversity requirement will not be delisted from Nasdaq, Friedman said, but they will have to outline the obstructions to doing so.

The Nasdaq contains all companies that trade on the exchange; more than 3,300 in total. It is dominated by technology companies, but there are many financial, biotech and industrial companies as well. It is the second largest exchange by market capitalization, behind the New York Stock Exchange.

Nasdaq said the proposal's goal is to give stakeholders a better understanding of a company's current board composition and to bolster investor confidence that all listed companies are considering diversity when they look for new board members.

The proposal would require all Nasdaq-listed companies to publicly disclose board-level diversity statistics through Nasdaq’s proposed disclosure framework within one year of the SEC’s approval of the listing rule.

About the Author

Brett Christie Bio Image

Brett Christie is the managing editor of Workspan Daily.


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