Why female leaders could give ASX companies an edge

There are many questionable investing adages that investors are subjected to, such as the “sell in May and go away” saying that implies that returns between May and October for stock markets are inferior to the other half of the year.

Of course, correlation does not prove causation. However, last week, there was an interesting piece of research released that appears to show empirical evidence of a far more interesting theory: increased female participation in company decision making leads to market-beating returns.

The research was undertaken by the globally respected International Monetary Fund, and looked at 2 million firms spread across 34 nations. The findings were impressive, with the results showing that companies that had one or more female in senior management or on the board of directors consistently outperformed those that did not.

In numerical terms, the outperformance lay between a range of 8% and 13%, which is even more notable in the low-growth investing cycle we find ourselves in.

So which ASX stocks are best positioned to benefit from more proportional board and management representation?

Coca-Cola Amatil Ltd (ASX: CCL) is one of the most well-known companies in Australia, and it has been led by CEO Alison Watkins since 2013. At the time of her appointment, she was only the second female CEO of a top 30 Australian company.

However, she came to the business at one of the most challenging times in its history, with falling carbonated drink consumption, heavy discounting by its key competitor, Pepsi, and the increased power of the supermarket giants all squeezing the company.

The share price has fallen by around 25% during her tenure, but a simplification of its relationship with its major shareholder, a re-entry into the lucrative alcoholic beverages market and a strategy to grow earnings in the giant Indonesian market could all provide the catalyst for a turnaround.

Sydney Airport Holdings Ltd (ASX: SYD) has shrugged off the tag of boring utility-style stock, more than doubling over the last three years, and much of that growth has been under Kerrie Mather, who was appointed CEO in 2011.

Mather has successfully orchestrated the turnaround of the airport. She also identified the structural shift towards more inbound Asian visitors, particularly from China, and negotiated direct flights to Sydney Airport from five separate Chinese carriers.

Since she took the CEO role, the shares are up over 90%, and the company has also paid consistent dividends of between 3% and 6% per share over that period.

Blackmores Limited (ASX: BKL) is usually associated with the founding family of the same name, but its corporate history will show that Christine Holgate’s appointment as CEO and Managing Director in 2008 was a turning point for the company.

Since her appointment, the shares are up an almost unfathomable 970%. While some of this gain can be attributed to large demand from Chinese consumers, Holgate deserves much of the credit for identifying the opportunity, and earmarking $3 million for careful and direct expansion in Asia. This move is even more impressive in hindsight, given at the time the decision was made Blackmores was under pressure in Australia from Swisse, and had not proven itself in its various international forays.

Foolish takeaway

More and more empirical research shows that diversity in race, gender, education and experience increases the strength of collective decision making, and the latest report by the IMF is another confirmation of this.

ASX boards and management teams who benefit from diversity are also more likely to deliver outperformance over the long term for their shareholders.

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Motley Fool contributor Ry Padarath has no position in any stocks mentioned. Unless otherwise noted, the author does not have a position in any stocks mentioned by the author in the comments below. The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.

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