Boardrooms around the world brought a mix of news on the gender front in 2019, with more women landing director seats and parity still a ways off. 

Female representation on corporate boards jumped about 2.1% so that women now hold a fifth of possible director positions, according to a study of the MSCI All Country World Index members as of Oct. 31.

Most of the advances in 2019 were driven by the U.S., where 26% of board seats were held by women, compared with 23.4% in 2018,  The index, designed to reflect the performance of the global equity market, tracks more than 2,700 stocks from 23 developed countries and 24 emerging economies.

“A large body of research suggests that having three women on a corporate board represents a `tipping point’ in terms of influence,” according to MSCI’s progress report tracking women on boards. Of the companies examined, 36% had reached this point in 2019, compared with 32% a year earlier. The increase was primarily driven by changes in developed economies.

Female penetration on corporate boards was highest in European companies. Three or more women served on the boards of 78% of the companies, the study showed.

The number of companies with all-male boards also dropped, largely because of a shift in Japan. The proportion of all-male boards among the index’s 323 Japanese companies declined to 33% in 2019 from 45% a year earlier. Similarly, the number of all-male board among the 51 Brazilian companies dropped to 29% from 47%.

“While female representation on boards in Asia and emerging markets has continued to lag that of Europe and North America, the pattern is different in executive suites, especially for the position of chief financial officer,” according to the study. “In both 2018 and 2019, a higher percentage of emerging markets companies had female CFOs than in developed markets.”

The study credited some of the advances to mandatory quotas for female directors, noting that countries that had them “attained greater overall gender diversity at the board level.”

  • There were 22 corporate boards — twice as many as the year before — with a majority of female directors, the study showed. Even so, 98.7% of the companies tracked had majority-male boards.
  • The top five companies in terms of female-director penetration were Polski Koncern Naftowy Orlen of Poland, Kering S.A. of France, Auckland International Airport in New Zealand, H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB of Sweden and Sodexo SA of France.
  • The top U.S. company as far as female board representation goes was Viacom Inc. in the 12th spot, with 55.6%. American Water Works, CBS Corp., General Motors Co., and Omnicom Group followed with 54.5%.