“Fearless Girl” Message is Going Global

Mission behind viral statue: More women in boardrooms

By April Hall

“The Fearless Girl” is more than a statue on Wall Street for State Street Global Advisors (SSGA) -- it’s a movement, a movement the financial firm plans to spread globally.

When the bronze statue was placed in front of looming bull of Wall Street earlier this year, it started a pop culture sensation. Photos were taken of it, accessories were placed on it, and the statue was even protested against by the bull’s sculptor. But its original message seemed to get muddled in the hoopla.

The Fearless Girl and the campaign around it was about one big mission for SSGA – getting more women into corporate boardrooms. Now, the firm wants to ride the viral wave and really impact change.

 “I think it is a pop phenomenon that strikes a chord with people,” says Rahki Kumar, managing directors of Environmental, Social and Governance Investments and Asset Stewardship at SSGA.

The popularity of the statue does not “dilute” the message of getting women into the boardroom, she says, but enhances it. The Fearless Girl is “true to its time. It’s a reminder day in and day out.”

Four female board members from a top retailer with brands such as Ann Taylor and Justice posed for a photograph in hopes of sending a strong message to Corporate America – put more women on boards.

“The Fearless Girl” push to get more women in the boardroom will move to other regions of the world. The statue may stay put on Wall Street, but “there may be more done with [the statue], too,” says Andrew Hopkins, a State Street spokesman, who would not comment on specifics.

SSGA had already taken the fight to the next level earlier this week when it announced the firm voted against re-electing directors in charge of recruiting board members at some 400 companies that were “screened out” as having made no effort to get women on their boards. Another 76 companies were put on notice and given more time to make a board change.

The 400 votes at companies in the U.S., U.K and Australia, however, likely did not keep those directors from maintaining their seats.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Kumar says. She notes that SSGA is one of many investors and there are no reports that any other investors stood with the firm in the votes against re-election.

“We take voting action, but that also brings attention to how investors can take part in the future,” Kumar says. “Most directors get re-elected with 99% of the vote and I’ve heard directors are very sensitive and take note if they don’t win by 99%.”

And while some other countries around the world have passed legislation demanding board diversity, Kumar says SSGA isn’t calling for legally mandated board appointments.

“We do not believe in quotas,” she says. “I think quotas can have unintended consequences.

“We believe board composition should include strong, independent members,” she continues. “We think that does require directors who are relevant to company’s strategy. It’s hard to believe companies can’t find women who have that background.”

It will be a long road ahead based on most gender-diversity statistics.

A recent report predicted gender parity won’t happen in the boardroom until 2032, six years later than executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles’ last report.

Another report released Wednesday, the Equilar Gender Diversity Index (GDI)—a quarterly analysis tracking the prevalence of women on public company boards of directors—found some movement. As of June 30, the percentage of women on Russell 3000 boards increased slightly to 16.2%, up from 15.9% at the end of the first quarter.

"The limited progress made in this quarter’s Gender Diversity Index highlights the importance of remaining vigilant relative to adding women to boards," says Blair Jones, a Managing Partner with Semler Brossy Consulting Group and a member of the Equilar Diversity Network Advisory Council. "What gets measured and talked about gets done, so boards need to keep the conversation alive."

SSGA’s Kumar is optimistic and realizes change takes time.

“This is not our first campaign,” Kumar says, noting that the firm did a similar push in 2014 for another cause – derailing excessively long board tenures.

“It was two or three years before other investors took the same position,” she says.

Now, of the hundreds of companies that were screened out for unwillingness to recruit new directors, some two-thirds have refreshed their boards, according to SSGA reports.