Women are beginning to crack Europe's boardroom glass ceilings thanks to government quotas, while their advance in the United States has nearly stalled, a new study found.
The inclusion of more women in boardrooms is crucial to boosting financial performance and, in turn, economic growth, the Washington-based Corporate Women Directors International said.
The global percentage of board seats held by women grew to 13.8 percent in 2011 from 10.4 percent in 2004, according to the 2011 CWDI report released Friday.
"Something is happening, and it's driven by Europe," said Irene Natividad, chair of the international research group.
"The momentum for more women on boards will change the face of the biggest companies in Europe, in the midst of the region's on-going financial crisis. They are ahead of the ball game."
In its latest study on women in the corporate boardrooms of the world's largest companies, the research group found mixed performances in Asia, with China forging ahead and Japan and South Korea treading in place.
Of the 31 new companies added to the Fortune Global 200 listing in 2011, more than half -- 16 -- have no women directors, the report said.
Eight Chinese companies were in that group, including China Railway Group and Dongfeng Automotive along with three Japanese firms, including Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group, and India's Reliance Industries.
Norway initiated government quotas for the number of women required to be in the boardroom in 2003, a move that has since been adopted in Belgium, France, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.
"Overall, the countries with quotas saw a higher percentage of women's board appointments when compared to the average female representation among other companies in the Fortune listing," the report said.
Companies in Germany's blue-chip DAX30 index have pledged to increase women's representation on boards to at least 30 percent by 2013, CWDI said.
The idea is catching on outside of Europe, with Malaysia enacting a quota on publicly listed companies in June.
And CWDI says there's a business interest there as well, arguing that a company with a high percentage of women on its board and senior management has a better financial performance.
"This reality is perhaps the reason why governments have taken the route of legislated mandates to push companies for a more accelerated pace in promoting women to corporate leadership roles," the report said.
Natividad said there were a lot more countries adding gender diversity language in corporate governance codes.
"Does it work? Yes, it does," she said at a forum unveiling the study in Washington.
France is the star of this year's report, posting the fastest increase in women's representation only a year after an October 2010 quota law mandating 40 percent representation in publicly listed companies within six years.
The law set a halfway point of three years to reach 20 percent, and France scored 20.1 percent, a sharp rise from 2004, when women held only 7.2 percent of board seats.
Banks and telecom companies assumed they had to comply with the law "and decided let's do it now, why wait?" said Ana Maria Llopis, a member of the board of France's Societe Generale bank who chairs the board of Spanish distributor Dia.
France's aggressive advance puts it within a hair of the United States, the leader still with women holding 20.8 percent of board seats.
But given the United States's anaemic rate of 3.3 percent increase since 2004, its lead "is beginning to slip away," CWDI warned.
China's average rate in 2011 was 8.0 percent, but Japan was a laggard. Its percentage slipped to 1.8 percent from 2.3 percent in 2009. Still, that was better than South Korea, which continued to have no women directors.
The sole male participant on the panel, Sol Trujillo, a director at US retail giant Target, welcomed the research as needed firepower to sway male mindsets.
"The case hasn't been made" at the highest levels, where information is considered "anecdotal," said Trujillo, a former chief executive of Australia's Telstra, Orange in France and US West.
"Now we have longitudinal empirical data," he said.
Trujillo said his most diverse teams have been the best performers, likening diversity to the multiple lenses used by a photographer: "You get to see more."
Caroline Anstey, World Bank managing director and the bank's representative among the self-identified Group of 20 "sherpa," said she was "somewhat disappointed" after the G20 summit in Cannes earlier in the month.
At the summit, leaders of the 20 major economies discussed where global growth would come from next as the advanced economies falter, reducing demand in the developing and emerging market economies.
But Anstey said women are the answer.
"Women are the next emerging market," she added. "Women as a group haven't mobilized across the world."
Women make up about 50 percent of the world's population and 40 percent of the workforce, but only own 1.0 percent of the world's wealth, Anstey noted.
AFP/ Veronica Smith/ Expatica