(WOMENSENEWS)--Women may be only 15 percent of corporate boards on Fortune 500 companies, despite what we've known for a long time: Women make 85 percent of the purchasing decisions about the products and services offered by those companies.
Journalist Amaya Gorostiaga, in an article in Business for Social Responsibility, writes that women control $20 trillion globally in annual consumer spending, a number that could hit $28 trillion in five years.
Facts like that rumbled into the annual meeting of the Women's Funding Network earlier this year and electrified the global alliance of 166 non-profits that invest in women and girls.
It led us to consider a key question: Why not apply a gender lens to for-profit investing? Why not leverage our shares of stock to advocate for more women on boards?
Hundreds of women who lead women's organizations and foundations were in the room. Many have personal assets and own stocks, which means they have an ownership stake in the companies that can be used as a tool for advocacy.
They also have information: In 2004 the Securities and Exchange Commission began requiring publicly traded companies to disclose in their proxy statements details about the director recruitment process.
Jacki Zehner, a former partner at Goldman Sachs, and Joe Keefe, president and CEO of Pax World Funds, led the discussion, which focused on bottom-line reasons to invest in companies that include women on their boards.
By the end, Zehner and Keefe urged shareholders to vote no on all-male corporate board slates.
"We can withhold support for all-male director slates, or instruct whoever is voting our proxies to withhold such support," Zehner said. "If enough investors ask this of their investment advisers--or their retirement plan administrators at work, or their mutual fund managers--then we can begin to make a difference. In fact, if we each wrote a letter to the companies, and enclosed it with our proxy ballot, letting them know why we are saying 'no' to their board slates, the companies we own would begin to get the picture."
Imagine the Power
Imagine how powerful this could be if it became a movement.
Women's funds and women's organizations can play a key role. We can vote our proxies related to our endowment funds. We can encourage our employees to do so with their individual investment shares. We can educate our mutual fund advisors to do this on our behalf. We can educate our donors about how they can also take the lead in leveraging their proxy votes for social change.
If you own stock – even just one share – then you have a proxy vote to leverage for board diversity!
Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ida B. Wells taught us about the power of the electoral vote.
Now the women's movement must use our voices to leverage our votes in another ballot box--the shareholder's realm.
One trailblazer is Denise Lynn Nappier, state treasurer of Connecticut and the first African-American woman to hold that position in the United States. She is also the first African-American woman elected to a statewide office in Connecticut and the only woman to be elected Treasurer in Connecticut history.
She is also the first state treasurer to leverage her proxy votes to increase corporate board diversity. Reading about Nappier's work in Connecticut opened our eyes to the incredible possibility of leveraging the massive investments held by state governments.
For most states, the treasurer is the chief elected financial officer with primary fiduciary responsibility over tens of billions of dollars. A treasurer has a unique ability to champion corporate board diversity and Nappier has done this.
She has urged companies to adopt policies that ensure that women and minority candidates are routinely sought as part of every board search. She has called on the SEC to require that companies disclose how their boards consider the issue of diversity when evaluating board composition. And her office is currently working on a board diversity project with the state and teacher pension funds of California.
Following Napier's Lead
Our organization--the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania, in partnership with Vicki Kramer (a board member of InterOrganization Network, comprised of 14 regional executive women's organizations collaborating to advance women to positions of power in the business world) and Pennsylvania State Treasurer Rob McCord--began to map out how our state could follow Nappier's lead.
McCord announced in April that he was amending the state's treasury proxy guidelines to improve board performance in several ways:
1) Manually vote on corporate board nominee slates via a formalized proxy voting system. (Prior to this policy change all proxies would be automatically voted "yes" for directors recommended by the company and presented as the official slate);
2) Correspond with company CEOs, board chairs and nominating committees that fail to include women as directors on corporate board nominee slates;
3) Sponsor, submit and support shareholder resolutions that seek a greater representation of women on corporate boards;
4) Encourage amending board nominating committee charters to ensure that female candidates are routinely sought in board searches.
By making these changes to the State Treasury Investing Guidelines, McCord has assured that the gender equity goals will be systemic and in place regardless of who holds this elected office.
The Women's Funding Network, the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania, the State Treasury and Kramer's network are now trying to engage more women's funds, women's colleges, women's organizations and women to begin similar dialogues with financial advisors and state treasurers. We urge you and your state to become involved.
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Heather Arnet is CEO of the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania. Arnet is a tireless advocate for women and girls rights and serves as a regular commentator to local and national media regarding women and girls rights and economic development. Follow her or contact her via twitter at: @heatherarnet.
For more information:
ION Take Action Toolkit for Investor Advocacy:
Catalyst: Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women on Boards 2004-2010:
Critical Mass by Vicki Kramer:
Top Ten Reasons for More Women on Boards:
When Will Women Become Equal On Boards?: