How wealth management clients may hold key to boardroom diversity

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Studies have shown that companies with greater gender diversity in both the boardroom and C-suite tend to enjoy higher returns. Yet firms still have work to do to achieve parity between women and men on boards.

One untapped resource to narrow the gap: Appealing to investors who are interested in promoting diversity, to allocate more of their private wealth to companies with successful diversity initiatives.

If gender equality is to be achieved, it will need a lot more support — and investment. The last few decades have witnessed great leaps in gender equality around the world. For example, in 46 countries, women now hold more than 30% of seats in national parliament in at least one chamber. In Southern Asia, by 2012, enrollment ratios for girls and boys in primary school were completely even. That’s a major shift from 1990, when just 74 girls were enrolled for every 100 boys. Yet in some parts of the world women still do not enjoy the most basic human rights. Over 50 countries do not provide a constitutional guarantee of equal rights to men and women, for example.

A recent World Economic Forum report suggested that worldwide the gender gap can be closed in 83 years. But gender equality efforts have received very little funding so far from philanthropists. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals include a category for causes related to gender equality, but just 2.6% of the donations toward SDGs were for such causes.

But if women are not adequately represented in boardrooms and in senior management positions, they do still control a lot of the purse strings. Private wealth held by women may be a perfect source to tap.

As recently as 2014, only 2% of wealth managers viewed women as a distinct group with specific investment interests, according to the Center for Talent Innovation. And yet, women today control 30% of private wealth, a proportion that is expected to grow significantly. More women are entrepreneurs than ever before and live longer than men, and most women (88%) want to fund and support projects that promote social good, according to Ernst & Young. Offering women access to these kinds of investment opportunities could be an edge for wealth managers.

But an obvious question is how to invest. A recent UBS report discussed the concept of “gender-lens wealth” — defined as “mobilizing private wealth towards gender equality worldwide.” The authors recommended that private individuals interested in supporting gender equality could start by tilting their equity portfolios toward companies with a higher proportion of senior female executives and directors, which generally has been found to correlate with higher returns.

While it is hard to prove causation, studies focused on dividend payout policy support the claim that diversity at the board level can enhance total returns, according to the UBS report. For example, a 2013 study found that companies with diverse boards are more likely to pay dividends and to pay larger dividends than those with less diverse boards, even when other variables are taken into account. And UBS’ own analysis of Russell 1000 companies found gender-balanced companies have higher average dividend yields.

In terms of impact investing, which aims to create measurable social impact and a compelling return, UBS notes there is a lack of full-fledged private investment funds focused on promoting women’s rights and gender equity. There are, however, some opportunities for solo or pooled deals for investments related to affordable childcare and closing the gender gap in “science, technology, engineering and mathematics” education. The authors also recommend exploring investment initiatives dealing with products targeted at women — including in financial services — or that seek to fill a gap in a specific region or market.

The bottom line is that investing in gender equality is not an easy thing to do. It takes dedication and passion. But there are plenty of potential investors and future philanthropists who haven’t yet been tapped who have the financial backing to promote diversity in the boardroom and beyond.

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