BlackRock Calls for Gender Balance in the Boardroom

This is part of a series of stories that comprise TheStreet's Blue Chip Studio, which will illuminate issues related to corporate board performance, activism, dealmakers and personalities revealed by analysis of data generated by BoardEx, a business unit of TheStreet.

BlackRock (BLK), the world's largest asset manager, said it will be putting pressure on companies to address boardroom diversity as part of a series of initiatives for 2017-2018 that the company's 30-member Investment Stewardship team will discuss with portfolio companies.

The New York-based firm, with $5.1 trillion under management, said board composition, effectiveness, and accountability remain a top priority, and that it plans to engage companies in a constructive manner.

"More specifically, over the coming year, we will engage companies to better understand their progress on improving gender balance in the boardroom," the firm said on its website on Monday. "Diverse boards, including but not limited to diversity of expertise, experience, age, race and gender, make better decisions."

Michelle Edkins, who will oversee the group that's heading the effort for BlackRock, did not immediately return requests for comment.

BlackRock's largest holdings, outside its own ETFs, are Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT), Exxon Mobil (XOM), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM). Apple's eight-member board includes two women, while Microsoft has three women on its 11-seat board. Exxon Mobil's 13-member board has four female directors, including its most recent addition, female climate scientist Dr. Susan Avery. Two women are on Johnson & Johnson's 10-member board. JPMorgan Chase has two women directors on its 12-person board.

BlackRock is the latest company to push for greater diversity. State Street (STT) used International Women's Day last week to promote boardroom diversity, commissioning "The Fearless Girl" statue to stand defiantly across from the Wall Street Bull in downtown Manhattan.

That being said, this is not BlackRock's first call for increasing gender diversity on boards. In 2011, BlackRock expressed that "diversity, in all of its aspects, can enhance board effectiveness if it results in a broader range of perspectives being taken into consideration in board decision-making."

For its part, BlackRock's 19-person board includes four women. Pamela Daley, former senior vice president of General Electric's (GE) corporate business development, has served on BlackRock's board since 2014, according to BoardEx data. BoardEx is a business unit of TheStreet.

Jessica Einhorn, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the National Bureau of Economic Research, joined BlackRock's board in 2012 after serving as dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at The Johns Hopkins University. Cheryl Mills, who joined BlackRock's board in 2013, is CEO of investment firm BlackIvy Group and previously served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Susan Wagner has been on BlackRock's board since 2012, and currently serves on the boards of Apple and Switzerland-based Swiss Re as well.

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Additionally, fellow BlackRock board member and CEO of Estee Lauder Cos. (EL) Fabrizio Freda, has spoken out about driving gender diversity at companies.

"Leaders must make sure that everyone understands the benefits to the organization, the results these decisions bring, and the power of talented women and all that they have achieved for the company," Freda told consulting firm McKinsey in January.

The vast majority of directors agree with Freda, with 91% saying diversity enhances board effectiveness and 84% of directors claiming that diversity leads to improved performance, according to a February report by auditing giant PricewaterhouseCoopers that analyzed boards at most of the biggest companies in the retail, banking, technology, insurance and other industries.

On average boards have 2.3 female directors, compared with 1.6 in 2006, Spencer Stuart, a leadership consulting firm, reported. Still, the firm said fewer minority directors were appointed to S&P 500 boards over the past year than in the year earlier. Of the 345 new independent directors, 15% are minorities, a 3% decline from 2015, according to Spencer Stuart's Board Index.

Minorities make up about 16% of all BlackRock directors, according to data from ISS Analytics, a division of corporate government adviser Institutional Shareholder Services. The directors range from 47 to 79 years old, with an average age of 64, according to the company's most recent proxy filing.

Along with boardroom diversity, BlackRock is also promoting the concept of a "climate competent board," particularly for companies in sectors that are significantly exposed to climate risk, such as oil producers and miners. BlackRock expects "the whole board to have demonstrable fluency in how climate risk affects the business and management's approach to adapting and mitigating the risk."

BlackRock shares were little changed at about $385.30 during trading on Monday.

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Action Alerts PLUS, which Cramer co-manages as a charitable trust, is long GE stock.

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