25th May 2018 4 minutes read

The Age of Activism: Pension Funds to drive Diversity Agenda

  • Almost three quarters (73 per cent) of institutional pension fund investors say the ethnic diversity of corporate boards is now a consideration when deciding their investment strategy
  • Over the next 12 months, UK pension funds are set to become more activist in line with US compatriots – putting pressure on companies to improve CSR, content controls and environmental performance
  • Corporate boards need to urgently review their talent pipelines and recruitment strategies and processes if they wish to attract future investment
  • Historically pension funds have been reluctant to wield their influence, feeling that it is not their role to lobby the firms in which they invest

New research conducted by Green Park reveals Institutional pension fund investors are increasingly determining investments based on the diversity of the corporate boards. A large majority of institutional pension fund investors say that both the gender (83 per cent) and ethnic (73 per cent) composition of corporate boards is now a consideration when deciding their investment strategy.

The importance of diversity is expected to rise even further. 71 per cent of pension fund investors believe that by 2030 ethnic diversity will rise on the scale of importance and be a key determining factor in an investment case. A further 69 per cent state gender diversity will become more important.

Table One: Ethnicity and Gender – Current And Future Significance

Current significance Ethnic Diversity Gender Diversity
It is a consideration 73% 83%
It isn’t a consideration at all 27% 17%
Significance change in five years Ethnic Diversity Gender Diversity
It will become more important 71% 69%
It will stay the same 25% 24%
It will become less important 4% 6%

 Source: Green Park 2018

The Executive Search and Interim Management Firm warns that corporate boards unable to develop diverse talent pipelines, or identify and recruit talent from minority groups, risk missing out on vital investment.

However, organisations wishing to secure investment have a large amount of work to do within a short timeframe. Green Park’s Leadership 10,000 found that six in ten (58 per cent) main boards in the FTSE 100 are yet to have ethnic minority presence. This goes against the Parker Review recommendations that FTSE 100 boards should have at least one director from an ethnic minority background by 2021, or 2024 for FTSE 250 boards.

The research reveals it is not just the investment case that diversity impacts, there is a belief that pension funds will increasingly use their financial influence to drive changes in corporate behaviour within existing firms that they hold a stake. Over half of pension fund investors (56 per cent) believe in the next 12 months UK pension funds will follow the trend of their US counterparts and seek to directly influence corporate policy to improve boardroom racial diversity. An additional 54 per cent believe UK pension funds will seek to put pressure on the companies in which they invest to improve gender diversity in the boardroom.

Moving forward organisations considering IPOs, mergers & acquisitions and new share issues, will need to be mindful of ensuring they have an inclusive recruitment and succession strategy if they are to attract pension fund investment. For many organisations, this may mean reviewing internal and procured recruitment practices and undertaking inclusion and cultural impact audits and assessments in order to understand and strengthen their employer of choice status in attracting diverse candidates.

Nearly a third (31 per cent) of the institutional pension fund investors believe UK pension funds that fail to demonstrate they are wielding their influence lobbying on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, will struggle to attract clients in future.

It is expected that there will be a shift in positioning over the next 12 months, with some UK-based pension funds becoming more interventionist like many of their American counterparts, shaping the policies of the companies in which they invest. Almost three quarters (72 per cent) of investors believe pension funds will take a proactive approach in the next 12 months, using their influence to lobby on environmental issues, while 65 per cent believe Corporate Social Responsibility will be an area to drive change.

Table Two: Anticipated Areas of Active Intervention by UK Pension Funds in the Next 12 Months

Areas for active intervention Percentage of institutional pension fund investors that agreed
Improved Environmental Performance 72%
Corporate Social Responsibility 65%
Better Controls of Content Management (e.g. technology companies investing in greater controls to prevent the spread of fake news and hate speech) 62%
Increased Boardroom Racial Diversity 56%
Increased Boardroom Gender Diversity 54%
Gender Pay Parity 54%
Better Child Safety Controls (technology companies) 50%
Increased Diversity in Age of Board Directors and Non-Executive Directors 38%
Better Controls on Advertising 35%

Source: Green Park 2018

Historically, UK-based pension funds have failed to wield their influence, with the greatest barriers identified as not having a history of activism and administrators not feeling it is their role to lobby the firms in which they invest (50 per cent).  Other reasons cited include being solely focused on the performance of the firms they invest in and not on their corporate behaviours (40 per cent), in addition to investments not being as large, therefore not wielding the same influence as US firms (20 per cent).

Raj Tulsiani, CEO of Green Park, said: “With trillions of pounds under management, UK-based pension funds have the power to effect real change amongst the businesses in which they invest, if they value diverse leadership.  US-based pension funds have demonstrably shown how their influence can be wielded on issues ranging from smartphone addiction in children, to the ethnic diversity of board nominees. Are the UK’s investment funds as forward thinking? It is yet to be seen.

“Recognising the power to effect change and the reputational benefits of doing so, we anticipate pension funds in the UK increasingly pressurising regressive firms to tackle issues such as gender pay disparities and board composition.  Firms driven to improve diversity at board level, without a history of inclusive policies, will need to look beyond their existing talent pools and partner with expert consultants to identify and attract high value candidates that may previously have been excluded from consideration despite their skillset. However, unless businesses can build trust that they are not engaging in a ‘tick-box exercise’, they will not start to attract and retain top talent from the widest and most diverse talent pools.”

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