ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There's a new mandate for corporations in California. By the end of next year, publicly traded companies headquartered there must have at least one woman on their board. And they'll have to phase in more by the year 2021. Diversity advocates have spent years pushing for this and not just in California. Men hold about 80 percent of the board seats of S&P 500 companies, but there are lots of reasons why other states might not follow California's lead. KQED's Lily Jamali reports from San Francisco.
LILY JAMALI, BYLINE: The idea that companies must now make room for women on their boards might sound good, but California's new mandate isn't the path many would have chosen. Carin Canale-Theakston is a communications consultant for the biotech industry.
CARIN CANALE-THEAKSTON: I think I want to clap because any movement towards gender equality is a great thing, but on the other hand, you want to cry because I can't believe still today in 2018 we need a bill to mandate gender equality.
JAMALI: When California Governor Jerry Brown signed the bill into law, he acknowledged it contains flaws that could, quote, "prove fatal" to enacting it. The main one - it may be unconstitutional. Duke law professor Kim Krawiec says opponents could challenge the law on the grounds that it violates equal protection guarantees by discriminating against men and failing to address marginalized groups besides women.
KIM KRAWIEC: African-Americans, Latina and Latino candidates, Asian-American candidates are all underrepresented. There's no similar law that is addressing them.
JAMALI: But corporate America is watching. Serena Fong is an executive with Catalyst, a nonprofit that advocates for the inclusion of women in the workplace. She says studies show companies with women on boards perform better.
SERENA FONG: I was actually very surprised that the bill got passed and signed into law because the minute that you started talking about gender diversity in the boardrooms, people leapt to, oh, they're talking about quotas. We do not like quotas, so let's just not talk about it at all.
JAMALI: Now, California could lead the way for others to follow. Kellie McElhaney is the director of the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership at UC Berkeley's business school. She cites what happened when Massachusetts barred companies from asking for salary histories.
KELLIE MCELHANEY: New York City followed on the previous salary, as did San Francisco, so you do see states and cities mirroring one another on these sorts of pieces of legislation.
JAMALI: And there's national movement, too. Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York has twice brought legislation requiring companies to disclose the gender of directors before Congress. She's pointed to this grim projection - even if half of all new board seats went to women, it would take four decades before they hold an equal number of seats in boardrooms across America. For NPR News, I'm Lily Jamali in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.