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The year of Fearless Girl produces more women on corporate boards

In the year since State Street's Fearless Girl statue started her showdown with Wall Street's Charging Bull, the $2.6 trillion asset manager has faced a confrontation of its own in corporate boardrooms: pressing firms to add more women to their boards.

More than 150 companies State Street targeted for not having a female director as part of its Fearless Girl campaign have added at least one, it said Wednesday. The company sent letters and engaged in an unprecedented withholding of votes from directors responsible for nominating their colleagues at more than 400 companies.

"We still have a long way to go but we're happy to see the impact we've had so far," said Rakhi Kumar, who leads environmental, social and governance investment strategy at State Street. "This is about diversity of thought and backgrounds. Women could be 50% of your customer base, and 30% of your employees. How are you representing the views of half of society?"

Investor-led efforts to get women on boards are at their strongest in years. In recent months, the $231.6 billion California State Teachers' Retirement System, West Sacramento, said it will withhold votes from directors at companies without women on their boards. BlackRock (BLK) has said it now expects companies to have at least two women on their boards and proxy adviser Glass Lewis & Co. in December pledged to start recommending votes against directors at Russell 3000 index companies with all male boards in 2019.

The number of companies in the Russell 1000 index without any women on their boards has fallen to 47 from a recent high of 176 in 2009.

After focusing on 787 companies in the U.S., U.K. and Australia without a female director, State Street is back at it this proxy season. It has added boards in Japan and Canada to the target list this year, Ms. Kumar said. The firm will also seek improved disclosure on diversity at all levels of employees to boost the pipeline of senior female executives, she said.

The percentage of female board members has now surpassed that of senior female executives, according to the custody bank's research, Ms. Kumar said. Less than 5% of chief executive officer roles in the S&P 500 index are held by women, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. For companies that haven't made any changes, "the bar is going to be much higher this year," Ms. Kumar said.

It's unclear whether Fearless Girl will stay around for another year. The statue is permitted to remain in her location until Thursday, but New York City officials haven't announced if she will get a new home.

There's been increased poignancy to her place on Wall Street this year as U.S. and U.K. banks have sought to quantify pay discrepancies between men and women employees. State Street itself agreed in October to settle allegations that it discriminated against more than 300 female executives by paying them less than male colleagues. The custody bank said it cooperated with the U.S. Department of Labor audit from 2012 but disagreed with the findings.