Lessons from the NASDAQ on Transforming Gender Equity
An interview with Evan Harvey, Global Head of Sustainability at NASDAQ, by Gitanjali Swamy, Ursula Wynhoven & Anastasia Bektimirova, GEIT Committee in support of EQUALS
NASDAQ, a global technology company, which operates the second largest stock and securities exchange in the world, has recently taken a major transformative step towards greater equity and inclusion, by filing a proposal with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to adopt new listing rules mandating board diversity and disclosure. We spoke with Evan Harvey, Global Head of Sustainability at NASDAQ, about what it takes organizations to successfully champion such transformative actions.
NASDAQ holds a unique position, spanning capital creation, markets and technology. It is ubiquitous; most electronic trading is on NASDAQ machines and the stock exchange lists many of the world’s largest technology companies, including Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Alphabet. NASDAQ is also a pioneer in relation to diversity and inclusion. The company recently relaunched the NASDAQ Foundation – originally established in 1994 as the NASDAQ Educational Foundation –and the Purpose Initiative. The former has a mission to equip under-represented communities with financial knowledge and build strategic partnerships for a deeper, data-driven understanding of obstacles in the path of advancing diversity, while the latter is designed to support women and minorities with the resources needed to grow and sustain their businesses. The December 2020 announcement of the new proposed listing requirements is an additional pillar in NASDAQ’s wider mission to combat structural factors across the society that impede equal participation of women and under-represented communities.
Today, women are still greatly underrepresented on corporate boards.
Despite significant public attention to the issue lately, efforts to increase gender diversity leave much to be desired. It is NASDAQ’s special positioning that has enabled it to pioneer in corporate change.
“We have all these relationships with the stock exchanges and we always knew that it was a tremendous opportunity to transform an industry,” says Evan, who has championed such transformation through his 16-year-long career at NASDAQ and his roles on the Global Sustainability Standards Board and the board of the UN Global Compact. Today, his work helps to make the exchange and all of its listed companies more transparent, efficient and responsible.
The time is right for disruptive steps
Evan believes “the time is right and necessary for these transformative, disruptive steps in order to not only create more diversity and inclusion but also more transparency about how companies are managing it.” More data yields better decisions. Without transparency, it is challenging for any solution to work sustainably, not least because the precise scope of the issue remains unknown.
“[Diversity and inclusion] is not a tick-box exercise or something done just to satisfy special interests, it is part and parcel of running an effective company, getting maximum productivity, loyalty of staff and talent recruitment.” - Evan Harvey
Today’s bold action was made possible because of the 10 years of effort that Evan’s team previously put into inspiring the business community to value transparency and raising awareness of the direct link between sustainability performance and business performance. Although the proposal is by no means a slam dunk as it is still a pending SEC case, it has successfully started the conversation on bold transformative moves for corporate diversity. While the response from within the business community has been mixed, with many fearing the lack of supply of qualified, diverse candidates and potential tokenism in appointments, Evan is optimistic: “We are using our podium and our exchange to hopefully drive some of these ideas into common boardroom practice.”
Lessons learned: Persist, Believe, Patience
Advocating transformation through compelling and disruptive ideas takes time, especially in a corporate environment. Evan believes, “success of this rule and its integration is proof that these ideas can take root even in the most difficult culture, economy and business climate. If it can work here, it can work everywhere else.” We might be moving with a “glacial” pace, but “we have to keep moving to get things going in a faster way, we need steps like these that are going to make great strides quickly.”
There are lessons that can be learned from the European commitment to creating board diversity. At the EU-level, the European Commission has proposed at least two significant pieces of legislation for companies listed on stock exchanges in EU Member States. In Italy, the Borsa Italiana S.p.A. stock exchange recommends Borsa-listed companies to have gender-balanced candidate pool for open board seats. Norway took aggressive action that obliged public limited liability companies to have at least 40% of each gender as directors on their boards. In the UK, London Stock Exchange requires “Premium Listing” companies to comply with all of the Financial Reporting Council’s corporate governance policies, including the gender diversity disclosure.
As Evan reveals, there is a popular belief that corporate diversity and sustainability regulations and rules left the U.S. out, often because of outdated excuses such as “this will work everywhere except for the U.S.”, “the U.S. is too focused on business” or “the U.S. is too focused on other things to ever have this be a priority”. However, a top-down regulatory approach is not enough for a sustainable behavioral change, especially in a culture where individual freedom dominates other public interests. “Some of this has to be societal, some of this has to be cultural,” believes Evan. Just like family and lifestyle choices fail to adequately explain the drop off of women from C-suite positions, “there is some other institutional dynamic going on,” reflects Evan. It is this fundamental “something” that Evan’s team at NASDAQ targets.
The road ahead
Evan admits that the NASDAQ action is only the first small step in a roadmap to societal equity and equal participation. True improvement in corporate equity is not achieved with a token high-level representation but through a corporate culture which encourages diverse voices and concerns to be heard.
“We want to have an effect that transforms the operating culture of US companies and that makes this more of the norm for companies to aspire to, rather than the outlier.” - Evan Harvey
As equality in the stock market is increasingly recognized as a benefit, the ideas and strategies pioneered by the NASDAQ will not only advance discussion but also yield more concrete and transformative action from the business community to address both board and broader corporate gender disparities.