Last weekend, California’s Governor Jerry Brown (D) signed a first-in-the-nation law that requires publicly traded companies based in the state to have women on their corporate boards.

“There have been numerous objections to this bill and serious legal concerns have been raised,” wrote Brown. “Nevertheless, recent events in Washington, D.C. — and beyond — make it crystal clear that many are not getting the message.”

California is home to Silicon Valley, which will be impacted heavily by the new law. More than 30 percent of tech boards have no women, and as the companies get more successful that percentage gets worse. Among so-called “unicorn companies”  — the massively successful ones with billion-dollar valuations — 68 percent lack any women on their boards.

There are some structural reasons for this problem, including the role of venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. By some measures, it seems that once women break into the boardroom, they are seen more or less as equals to their male counterparts.

While California’s policy is the first of its kind in America, it’s not unique. In fact, compared to some European nations, California’s policy is tame. Norway, Iceland, Spain and France all have targets ranging from 20 to 40 percent for their corporate boards, as opposed to California’s single person target.

While some have expressed concerns about the idea of the “token woman” working against women on boards, European quotas have actually been quite successful. In Iceland, they’ve actually surpassed the target of 40 percent, averaging 44 percent representation.

The tech sector is notorious for its sexism. A game designer, Brianna Wu, received rape and death threats when she joked that a rise in women programmers from 3 percent to 8 percent would be seen as “apocalyptic.” Uber also had a rampant culture of sexual harassment that erupted into scandal (no wonder they want to do away with drivers).

Representation on corporate boards is not a silver bullet, though, as illustrated by Iceland. The World Economic Forum has, for a decade, placed Iceland at the top of their list of best countries for gender equality. The country has 48 percent of its legislature comprised of women, had the world’s first lesbian head of state, and still has issues with sexism and harassment. And still, it’s considered the best place in the world to be a woman.

So the lesson from Europe on California’s law is that it might not be going far enough.

“This California law is a good start,” University of Delaware Professor of Management Wendy Smith told the Women’s Media Center, “but will only be effective if it’s also surrounded by other laws, such as term limits [and] other commitments to have more women and minorities on boards, and other changes, such as cultural shifts in how we understand women’s leadership.”

But in the current cultural moment, this first step is an important one.


Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.

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