California Mandates Gender Diversity on Public Company Boards

California has become the first state in the nation to require public companies to put female directors on their boards. On September 30, 2018, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill mandating that by the end of 2019 certain publicly traded companies with headquarters in the state appoint at least one woman to their boards. Further, by 2021, companies subject to the law with at least five directors will need to appoint at least two female directors to their boards, and those with at least six directors will need to appoint at least three female directors to their boards. Companies subject to the law that do not comply with the mandates will face financial penalties.

Whether the law is constitutional is questionable. Governor Brown acknowledged as much after he signed the bill, stating, “I don’t minimize the potential flaws that may indeed prove fatal to its ultimate implementation,” but he justified the law, stating that “recent events in Washington, D.C.—and beyond—make it crystal clear that many aren’t getting the message.” Opponents argue that the mandate violates both the California and U.S. Constitutions because it imposes impermissible gender quotas and requires companies to reject or replace men seeking to serve on boards. In addition, opponents claim that the law violates constitutional principles because it applies to companies headquartered in California even if they are incorporated in another state, creating an inherent conflict between California law and the corporate law of every other state.

Regardless of whether the California law is ultimately enforceable, there is no question that proxy advisory firms and some institutional investors like BlackRock remain focused on board diversity, including gender diversity, and there will continue to be pressure on public company boards to increase their diversity. Action by shareholders seeking to increase board diversity, rather than state governments mandating quotas, is likely to be more enduring and ultimately more successful.