France is racing to the top in putting women on corporate boards, thanks to a new government quota requirement aimed at promoting gender equality, a new study said Friday.
A number of mostly European countries have seen their boardrooms transformed by directives from governments and pressure from private-sector groups in recent years, according to a 2011 study from the Washington-based Corporate Women Directors International.
And France is swiftly catching up to the United States in the percentage of women directors, the international research group said.
"Something is happening, and it's driven by Europe," said Irene Natividad, chair of the Washington-based CWDI.
"The momentum for more women on boards will change the face of the biggest companies in Europe, in the midst of the region's ongoing financial crisis. They are ahead of the ball game."
The latest CWDI study on the status of women directors looks at the Fortune Global 200 companies, the world's largest as ranked by revenue.
"Overall, the countries with quotas saw a higher percentage of women's board appointments when compared to the average female representation among other companies in the Fortune listing," the report said.
The idea of government quotas for the number of women required to be in the boardroom was initiated by Norway in 2003, but since then it has been adopted in Spain, France, the Netherlands, Iceland, Italy and Belgium.
Outside of Europe, Malaysia enacted a quota on publicly listed companies in June.
France has already beaten a timetable set by the October 2010 quota law, which mandates that women comprise 40 percent of directors of public limited companies within six years.
The law set a halfway point of three years to reach 20 percent, and France has already beaten that, with 20.1 percent. In 2004 only 7.2 percent of the board seats were held by women.
US companies, however, still lead by a hair, with women holding 20.8 percent of board seats.
But given the United States's anemic rate of increase of 3.3 percent since 2004, it appears likely to be overtaken, the CWDI said.
The business case for gender diversity on corporate boards is that a company with a high percentage of women on its board and senior management has a better financial performance, the study said.
"This reality is perhaps the reason why governments have taken the route of legislated mandates to push companies for a more accelerated pace in promoting women to corporate leadership roles."