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Why a statue of a defiant girl stands in front of Wall Street’s ‘Charging Bull’

State Street Global Advisors and its advertising agency, McCann New York, have put a statue of a defiant girl across from Wall Street's Charging Bull to draw attention to its efforts to push more companies to put women on boards.
State Street Global Advisors and its advertising agency, McCann New York, have put a statue of a defiant girl across from Wall Street's Charging Bull to draw attention to its efforts to push more companies to put women on boards. Federica Valabrega

Wall Street visitors and tourists will notice a new addition if they’re walking down Broadway in New York this week. About 20 feet across from the famous Charging Bull statue – a symbol of Wall Street’s strength and might that has loomed over the street since 1989 – a bronze statue of a girl stands facing it, hands on hip, a defiant expression carved into her face.

The temporary statue, placed overnight Monday by McCann New York advertising agency and its client, Boston-based State Street Global Advisors, may be a stunt to draw attention to the index fund giant’s campaign to get more women into board roles against the backdrop of International Women’s Day and the anniversary of the launch of an exchange-traded fund that tracks companies that have higher levels of gender diversity in its leadership. It has a permit for the statue to remain for a week - the firm is trying to extend it to a month, according to a firm spokesman – and a plaque in front of the girl says “SHE makes a difference,” a reference to the ticker for the exchange-traded fund.

But the campaign ploy is also backed up by an actual threat from the big money manager, which has nearly $2.5 trillion in investments under management: If directors aren’t making tangible progress toward adding women to their board, they’ll vote their shares against them.

State Street is vowing that it will now vote its shares in the 3,500 public companies in which it invests - the money manager is among the largest index fund providers and often holds sizable stakes in its companies - against nominating committee members, or the directors who select the members of boards, if the company has no female directors or cannot show tangible progress toward trying to improve their diversity.

“As a large index provider, we have to be invested in these companies,” said Lori Heinel, the deputy global chief investment officer for State Street, in an interview. “The best thing we can do is be more activist in those companies to improve their performance as a long-term provider of capital.”

Data from corporate governance data firm Equilar shows that nearly 25 percent of companies in the Russell 3000 index, meant to be a benchmark of the entire U.S. stock market, have no female membership.

Advocates for gender parity applauded the move. “I feel like every other month a new study comes out that makes the case for gender diversity in corporate leadership,” said Brande Stellings, vice president of corporate board services for Catalyst, the nonprofit research firm. “But clearly the business case is not providing the motivation. To see important players like State Street say we’re going to be looking at this, and we’re going to be holding you accountable – I think that’s a significant development.”

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