Saturday June 30, 2012
Fines lead women on to Italian boards
By SHIREEN MUHIUDEEN
HISTORY is repeating itself 14 years on, as Europe is going through what Asia suffered in the 1997-1998 regional currency crisis.
At that time, leaders in Asia had to make extremely tough decisions that resulted in large financial losses for both business groups, as well as individuals.
Even now, not all the Asian currencies have fully recovered to their pre-crisis levels.
In the throes of the crisis, many frowned and belittled Malaysia for rejecting the International Monetary Fund's help, choosing instead to stop short selling and to control the movement of its currency.
The rest of the world saw Asia as doing nothing more but bailing out its banks; we were viewed as being irresponsible as we would not allow the weak to fail.
Fast forward a decade later, and we have the United States not allowing its favoured big firms to fail.
Europe seems to have learnt nothing from Asia and the US; its leaders continue to avoid making those tough but inevitable decisions.
The one thing that all three continents have in common is their need for stronger doses of transparency and accountability.
Without these wake-up calls, many companies are at risk from their existing weak structures, as well as having boards that implement best practices poorly.
We all know the view that one of the best ways to strengthen companies is to have more independent-minded directors who come from diverse backgrounds.
Diversity generally challenges “group think”, the evil behind weak, complacent board decisions. If an entire board is like-minded, how can you have a lively debate with varying views?
Some boards culturally do not encourage discussions as this could seem out of line, disrespectful or even insolent.
There is now however, a global movement towards ensuring independent thought on boards by requiring diversity, which is part satisfied by nominating more women directors.
We read recently that a European Union (EU) member, Italy has pushed ahead in this direction with a new law requiring that, by 2015, at least one-third of the boards of all its listed and state-owned companies be women.
Companies that flout this law will be sanctioned progressively, and face fines of up to one million Euros. This is one of the few countries that will fine companies that do not implement this law.
Italy is to be congratulated for such a bold move, especially when it has one of the lowest number of women directors in the EU (6%). Its agency regulating this, said that as of end 2011, about half of all listed companies in Italy had all-male boards.
The EU, a 27-nation bloc, had corporate boards of which only 13.7% were women, on average.
That figure would have been far lower if it had not included Nordic countries, where women are very well represented in boardrooms. In that, Norway is the runaway leader with almost half of all board directors being women.
Some big Italian companies are already gearing up for diversity: the 113-year-old car maker Fiat recently welcomed its first two women directors, while tyre maker Pirelli did likewise in April 2011. Of course, this change of heart is fraught with hassles.
A woman director at Pirelli, who had been an auditor for 40 years, was quoted as saying that being a woman meant that she “needed a pitchfork” to join the board.
She added that without the new law, company boards would go on excluding women. “Now,” she said, “it is up to women to demonstrate they're well-prepared for the job.”
We agree with her view that this law will be a stimulus for working women. Finally, we could see more corporate women role models.
Hassles aside, it is heartening to note that various groups have lobbied the European Commission, which governs the EU, to make female representation on boards mandatory across the entire EU.
Interestingly, we have also read that a senior policy analyst at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development bemoaned this added burden on top of trying to solve the eurozone's currency woes.
Given the current crisis, she said, “you don't want to over-regulate or impose unnecessary burdens on companies”. She thought such burdens would stifle growth.
How wrong that view is. The whole point of gender diversity in boardrooms is to help companies make better decisions that, in time, would make it stronger and able to grow even more.
So, surely, in these very difficult times, Europe should be hunting down people who bring fresh perspectives and broad visions and ushering them onto boards.
We are proud to say that Malaysia is again daring to be different and ahead of the curve: it has set itself a target to have women make up 30% of all its corporate boards by 2017.
We just hope that corporate Malaysia does “walk the talk” and that all the current large and new initial public offerings that are attracting international participation, have committed to our own gender diversity target by announcing that 30% of these new premier boards listed will comprise of talented Malaysian women.
● Shireen Muhiudeen is managing director of Corston-Smith Asset Management in Malaysia, a fund management company that makes investment decisions based on corporate governance.