The Fortune 500 Woke Wars Begin

S.E.C. Chair Gary Gensler.
S.E.C. Chair Gary Gensler. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
Eriq Gardner
October 17, 2022

The midterm races may get all the attention, but there is another election cycle with high stakes, colorful politicking, and tangled controversies. I’m referring, of course, to shareholder proxy season, which might not attract cable news obsession yet, but gird yourself. This could well become the next great battleground in America’s heavily lawyered culture wars. 

The battles all tend to coalesce around various firms’ commitments to E.S.G.—the ubiquitous acronym for environmental, social and governance factors that may impact investors—and shareholder proposals have become a key focal point of the movement. Must the world’s biggest corporations do more to fight climate change? Disclose racial and gender disparities? Stop covering up sexual misconduct in arbitration? Should they give investors more insight into how they’re lobbying and making charitable donations? 

Not everything gets a vote. Shareholders with a nominal stake in a corporation can propose whatever they wish, but a company can then beg the Securities & Exchange Commission to allow them to exclude a proposal from their annual elections. Recently, for example, the S.E.C. granted a so-called “no-action” request after an Intel shareholder proposed that the chipmaker detail how employees reacted to a gay pride flag. That said, the Biden-era S.E.C. has been pretty welcoming of those shareholders who aim to steer corporate behavior.