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A global increase in women on corporate boards is due largely to progress by countries in Europe.

George Doyle

A global increase in women on corporate boards is due largely to progress by countries in Europe, while boards in Canada and many other countries have shown little change, according to a new global report tracking progress on board gender diversity.

A study by New York-based GMI Ratings shows women accounted for 11 per cent of the world's corporate board seats in the first quarter of 2013, based on a sample of 4,332 companies in 45 countries. That is a modest increase from 10.5 per cent at the end of 2011, and a more significant increase from 9.3 per cent at the end of 2009.

But GMI says most of the growth is due to progress in Europe, where most countries have adopted policies – either quotas, voluntary targets, or disclosure requirements about diversity – that have boosted growth of women on boards.

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Women's representation on boards climbed 3.3 percentage points since 2009 in the Nordic region countries of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, while growth for women in the rest of Europe increased 4 percentage points.

France, which is phasing in a 40-per-cent quota for women on boards by 2017, has climbed to fourth in the world with 18.3 per cent of its board seats filled by women – an increase of 9.3 percentage points since 2009.

"In the rest of the world outside Europe, meanwhile, the proportion of female directors has risen only 0.8 percentage points in the same period," said report author Kimberly Gladman.

More than half the women directors added to boards since 2009 were in Europe, GMI says. That means one-third of the world's female corporate directors are now on European boards, although those companies only account for 25 per cent of the sample studied.

In North America, by comparison, the pace of change has been far slower. GMI said Canada's situation is "near-stasis" with women accounting for 13.1 per cent of corporate board seats in the first quarter of 2013, based on a sample of 145 companies. That is unchanged from the end of 2011 and an increase of just over half a percentage point from 12.4 per cent at the end of 2009.

Canada ranks 10th for women on boards among the 20 major industrialized companies in the sample.

Women account for 14 per cent of U.S. directors in GMI's large sample of 1,489 companies, an increase from 13.1 per cent at the end of 2011. Among larger U.S. companies in the S&P 500 index, women account for 16.9 per cent of directors. The U.S. ranks eighth among industrialized countries.

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Japan ranks last in the world among industrialized countries with just 1.1 per cent of its board seats filled by women. The top country is Norway, with 36.1 per cent women on boards.

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