Jan 24, 2020

Goldman's baby step in the right direction on board diversity

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Goldman Sachs announced Thursday that it won't help take European and North American companies public unless they have at least one "diverse" board director, effective July 1.

The big picture: In general, this is a positive development. Board diversity has been shown to improve company performance, per numerous academic studies, and far too many issuers continue to rely on bogus "pipeline" or meritocracy excuses for their boardroom homogeny.

  • A bank spokesperson confirms to Axios that "diverse" means anyone who isn't a straight, white male.
  • And a quick grammatical nit: "Diverse" shouldn't be used to describe an individual. A group can be diverse, but one person cannot.

What they're saying: Goldman CEO David Solomon said on TV yesterday that around 60 companies in the past two years have gone public with all-white, all-male boards. He didn't address the sexual orientation piece in there, and I'm unsure as to how Goldman plans to handle it.

  • If Goldman can help make a difference in the right direction, even a small one, then good on them.

Yes, but: Don't pat Goldman too hard on the back.

  • All California-based public companies already are required by state law to have at least one woman director by year-end.
  • Goldman did not reach out to other major investment banks ahead of this announcement, trying to get their buy-in. Doing so would have significantly furthered its stated objective, and felt like less of a PR push.

The state of play: This new policy will apply to both IPOs and direct listings in which Goldman is a participant (i.e., Goldman needn't be lead left manager). It's unclear if it also will apply to Goldman's private capital fundraising practice, or how the firm will handle Asia, Africa, and South American issuers.

  • I did a quick review of on-file IPO issuers with Goldman on their books, and didn't find one that would run afoul of the diversity mandate. This includes Jamf Software, which Bloomberg reports just filed confidentially with Goldman as lead.

The bottom line is that Goldman has done something virtuous, and also that it could have done something even better. Perhaps by not building a Wall Street coalition, it will cause rivals like Morgan Stanley and J.P. Morgan to raise the ante. If so, everyone wins.

Go deeper: 63% of directors say investors pay too much attention to corporate board gender diversity

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