Getting more women on boards is good business
I don’t have the research in front of me but, anecdotally, I have noticed that women use phones, fly on planes, shop and withdraw cash from ATMs.
If my analysis is correct, you’d think the top brass at Telstra, Qantas, Westfield and the Commonwealth Bank would need to know a fair bit about women – a hefty chunk of their customer base and their workforce – and what makes them tick.
I’ve no doubt that these organisations employ many fine strategists, marketeers and consultants who can provide the kind of research that backs up my casual observations.
But when their exhaustive reports reach the top management ranks – and ultimately the board of directors – it’s a bunch of grey-haired blokes who decide how best to cater to the feminine customer base.
You shouldn’t generalise but my research suggests women are different to men when it comes, for example, to shopping and talking on phones.
And it’s this same cabal of baby boomer Davids, Johns and Peters that also deals with the needs and wants of female workers.
Telstra has just one woman on its 11-member board. (Admittedly, Catherine Livingstone is the chairman but she is still outnumbered five-to-one by men called John.)
Qantas and the Commonwealth bank have two women on their 11-member boards. Westfield, the biggest owner of shopping malls in Australia, has just one woman among 13 directors (though it does have two Davids, two Peters and two Stephens/Stevens).
It’s a scandal that women, who make up more than half of the population and 45 per cent of the workforce, are so under-represented on boards.
Recent figures, highlighted on The Punch last month by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, reveal that women make up just 8.3 per cent of boards in the top 200 stock market-listed companies.
Only 2 per cent of chairs are female and half of the nation’s top boardrooms are all-male domains.
Broderick has controversially raised the option of imposing quotas to “kick start this process of gender equality”. (It worked for the Labor party, where women now make up 40 per cent of its federal parliamentary ranks.)
This week, the Australian Institute of Company Directors came out against quotas, saying you could not apply a “one-size-fits-all” approach to Australian companies given their diversity.
But, commendably, it did launch a major program to boost the number of women in Australian boardrooms.
The AICD recommends boards set targets for female representation – targets that suit their particular industry – and publish statistics on the number of women among its executive and board ranks.
The targets would not be mandated in law.
But if the goal – say, 25 per cent of board seats filled by women within three years – was not met, or the statistics were not published, companies should be compelled to explain why.
Critics will deride this form of self-regulation as useless but setting guidelines and publicly embarrassing companies when they fail to meet them is working on the vexed issue executive pay – albeit slowly and with a fair degree of resistance.
Among the AICD’s other measures to improve workplace and boardroom “diversity” include more family-friendly work policies, mentoring programs for female directors and databases of likely female candidates for board roles.
The chairmen of companies including BHP Billiton (one woman among 14 directors), the ASX (one of nine), Woolworths (two of nine) and the president of the Business Council of Australia (one of nine) have pledged their support to the plans.
The hope is that better representation for women at the top will have a trickle-down effect that will help close the gender equality gap at all levels of an organisation.
Still, you can discount the notion that corporate Australia has suddenly discovered a heart or is on an altruistic crusade to right past wrongs.
And you can forget the psychobabble about women bringing much-needed sensitivity, understanding and intuition into the hard-headed men’s club.
For a lot of the fifty-something blokes who still run the business world, getting more women on boards is simply good business.
We don’t need quotas – and the tokenism they represent – to improve the standing of women in boardrooms. But maybe the threat of quotas will be enough to make companies see commonsense.
The new drive for better female representation at the top of companies is belated recognition that they have failed to tap a huge source of talent and skills for their boards.
It’s recognition that they need more voices in boardrooms, voices that better reflect the diversity of the population and, critically, companies’ workplace and customer base.
And, frankly, it’s about time.
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