Columbia Threadneedle Investments, the $482bn asset manager, is adding to pressure on US companies to improve board diversity by targeting directors in businesses where women are under-represented.
The group, owned by US financial giant Ameriprise, has put in place a policy by which it refuses to support the re-election of committee chairs, who are charged with hiring new directors, where women account for less than 15 per cent of board members.
The move is a strong signal that investor concern about diversity is spreading to the US from Europe, where shareholders have been pushing for a greater mix on boards for several years.
Iain Richards, head of governance and responsible investment at Columbia Threadneedle, said the US had “some catching up to do”.
“They are at an earlier stage of this debate. What will ultimately be important is that shareholders get more engaged in this topic,” he said.
“We are looking at laggards, companies that are lagging behind the market. That’s companies where [board diversity] is not being taking seriously as an issue or where there is malaise about having the right talent in the boardroom.”
According to data from State Street Global Advisors, one in four of the 3,000 largest listed US companies did not have a woman on their board in 2017. Research from Deloitte in 2017 found that women held just 14.2 per cent of board seats in the US, compared with 21.2 per cent in Nigeria, 27.5 per cent in New Zealand, 40 per cent in France and 42 per cent in Norway.
Columbia Threadneedle began taking voting action at annual meetings over gender diversity issues in 2016, focusing on the UK initially. In the UK and Europe, it does not support nomination committee chair re-elections in businesses with less than 25 per cent female directors.
The Boston and London-headquartered fund house extended the programme to all its investment operations globally this year, notably including the US.
It has voted against or abstained on a director’s re-election over diversity issues in 131 cases in the US in the first six months of 2018.
In total, there were 232 cases where it dissented on director elections over diversity this year globally, compared with 144 for all of 2017.
Some other big investors have also introduced voting policies on diversity to try to get companies to take the issue seriously. This year, Legal & General Investment Management announced plans to vote against all-male boards in the US.
State Street Global Advisors, which unveiled the Fearless Girl statue in 2017 to promote the need for greater diversity in workplaces, said it voted against more than 500 companies globally last year that had failed to take steps to add a woman to their board.
Robert Walker, managing director of asset stewardship for Emea at State Street Global Advisors, said investors had a duty to tackle the under-representation of women in senior positions.
“[With diversity] there are companies that just don’t get it. We have to go in with the economic argument [to get them to listen], pointing out that companies with more diverse boards outperform.”