Challenging Boardroom Homogeneity: Corporate Law, Governance, and Diversity

The following post comes to us from Aaron A. Dhir, an Associate Professor of Law at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada and a Visiting Professor of Law at Yale Law School.

The lack of gender parity in the governance of business corporations has ignited a heated global debate, leading policymakers to wrestle with difficult questions that lie at the intersection of market activity and social identity politics. In my new book, Challenging Boardroom Homogeneity: Corporate Law, Governance, and Diversity (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming in 2015), I draw on semi-structured interviews with corporate board directors in Norway and documentary content analysis of corporate securities filings in the United States to investigate empirically two distinct regulatory models designed to address diversity in the boardroom—quotas and disclosure.

In Chapter 4, recently made available on SSRN, I explore the quota-based approach to achieving gender balance in corporate boardrooms. Quotas and related target-based measures for publicly traded firms are currently in place in a number of countries, including Iceland, Belgium, France, Italy, and Norway and are at different stages of consideration in other jurisdictions, including Canada, the European Union, and Germany.

I present findings from my qualitative, interview-based study of Norwegian corporate directors in order to provide empirical elucidation of how quota-based regimes operate in practice. The identity narratives of Norwegian board members offer particularly rich sources of insight, given that Norway was the first jurisdiction to pursue the quota path and thus has the most mature quota regime. While highly contentious when adopted, the Norwegian quota project unquestionably set the stage for subsequent legislative developments in other countries.

I delve into the lived experiences of Norwegian directors who gained appointments as a result of Norway’s quota law, as well as those who held appointments before the law was enacted. Several questions frame my investigation. How have these individuals subjectively experienced, and made sense of, this intrusive form of regulation? How does legally required gender diversity affect their economic and institutional lives? And how has it shaped boardroom cultural dynamics and decision making, as well as the overall governance fabric of the board?

The forced repopulation of boards along gender lines has disturbed the traditional order of corporate governance systems, dislocating established hierarchies of power in key market-based institutions. Norway represents the paradigmatic case of this disturbance and has set in motion a wave of corporate governance reform unlike any other. As such, it constitutes a fascinating and appropriate case study through which to consider the implications of quota regimes. My study of the Norwegian quota model demonstrates the important role diversity can play in enhancing the quality of corporate governance, while also revealing the challenges diversity mandates pose.

In Chapter 6, also recently made available on SSRN, I explore the disclosure-based approach to addressing diversity in corporate governance. In 2009, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission adopted a rule requiring publicly traded firms to report on whether they consider diversity in identifying director nominees and, if so, how. The rule also requires firms that have adopted a diversity policy to describe how they implement the policy and assess its effectiveness. The rule does not define “diversity,” however, leaving it to corporations to give this term meaning.

I present findings from my mixed-methods content analysis of corporate disclosures submitted during the first four years of the rule in order to provide empirical elucidation of how the rule operates in practice. The research sample consists of a hand-collected dataset of the 2010–2013 definitive proxy statements of S&P 100 firms. I am interested in learning how these firms, in responding to the rule, construct the concept of diversity through their public discourse. What does diversity, viewed through the prism of legal regulation, mean to market participants? How do they interpret and understand this socio-political idea in the absence of a regulatory definition? How is diversity constituted and discursively performed?

The SEC’s disclosure rule has caused US corporations to establish a vocabulary of diversity. My study shows that “diversity” carries multiple connotations for these firms. My most salient finding, however, is that when interpreting this concept in the absence of regulatory guidance, the dominant corporate discourse is experiential rather than identity-based. Firms most frequently define diversity with reference to a director’s prior experience or other nonidentity-based factors rather than his or her socio-demographic characteristics. The data provide a unique window into the potential meanings of “diversity” in the corporate governance setting, as well as the limits of a strategy that permits corporations to give the term their own definition.

Challenging Boardroom Homogeneity aims to deepen ongoing policy conversations and offer new insights into the role law can play in reshaping the gendered dynamics of corporate governance cultures. The full version of Chapter 1 is available for download here.

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