Australia

Signs the glass ceiling cracking as men get used to ‘shock’ of having women on boards

There is evidence of a widening crack in Australia's glass ceiling.

Figures released today by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) show that, in the first three months of this year, more women than men were appointed to ASX 200 boards.

AICD, The 30 per cent Club — a lobby group campaigning for 30 per cent of women on ASX 200 boards by the end 2018 — and investor groups have all ramped up their efforts this year to get more women on boards.

"We've been joined by senior chairs of ASX companies, by senior directors, who have been a force at work arguing the business case for greater diversity on our boards," AICD chairman Elizabeth Proust said.

Ms Proust said she believed boards were finally getting the message about diversity and why it is important for the future of good governance.

"It's had its frustrating moments," she said.

"There was certainly a point where it seemed the message wasn't getting through.

"But in all of these journeys you reach a tipping point, and I think we've reached it."

Of the 56 appointments to ASX 200 boards in the first three months of the year, 52 per cent have been women.

That compares to 33 per cent of female appointments in the first quarter of 2017, and 44 per cent over the first quarter of 2016.

It marks the first time in Australian corporate history that female appointments to ASX 200 boards have exceeded male appointments.

So what is happening at the board level that is leading to more women being appointed to the top?

Ms Proust said boards are seeing the potential for a boost to the company's bottom line.

"It's largely been arguing the case for greater gender diversity as a business case, not an equity case," she said.

University of Technology, Sydney, corporate governance expert Thomas Clarke agreed it was a significant change, but said boards were afraid of a gender diversity quota being imposed, and that was what was driving some of the change.

"They know if they don't achieve these targets of greater participation of women there will be a campaign of quotas for women on their boards, and no-one really prefers that in Australia," Professor Clarke said.

RN Breakfast asked Minister for Women Kelly O'Dwyer if indeed she had any plans to introduce a bill for a quota for women at the board level.

"I think the Government's been leading by example," she said.

"I am very encouraged by the figures that we have seen.

"But… I think a 50 per cent target is clearly what everybody hopes to achieve."

So gender diversity quotas in the private sector are not likely anytime soon.

Professor Clarke thought that could be an impediment to seeing more women at the board level.

"I think once they get used to the shock of having women on their boards they discover that it strengthens the board," he said.

"In many quarters it would psychologically still be very much a boys club."

He said he believed more needed to be done to sell the value of diversity at the board level and the business case was obvious.

"Many companies are now realising this, not just in Australia but right across the world," Professor Clarke said.

Women missing from senior executive ranks

But there is another diversity problem niggling away in the corporate sector.

Research shows while there is solid evidence that more Australian women are reaching the top ranks of publicly listed companies, there is still a glaring absence of women among senior executive ranks.

"It's important to get women participating on boards, but it's much more important to get them running the companies in executive roles."

"Still we're doing very little of that."

Professor Clarke made the point that the number of women CEOs in the ASX 200 is fewer than the number of men called Steven.

Gai McGrath is on the boards of three large publicly listed companies.

She is well placed to provide a perspective on the need for more women in senior management, not just at the board level.

"That's really where the next area of focus needs to be," she said.

"There is a lot more that we as boards need to do to ensure that we have the appropriate support and cultural environment that allows our women to thrive and seek out those careers in those line management roles.

"We really need to challenge ourselves about what is the culture that enables women to be successful, to realise their potential.

"And it's not about making women more like men.

"It's trying to make an environment that enables those women to truly shine and realise what they can do to contribute across all of our organisations."

But Ms McGrath said she was encouraged by the number of women now being appointed to boards.

"I think that the message that the value of gender diversity on boards has really hit home," she said.

"Certainly with vacancies that are coming up, gender diversity is a critical part of the equation to make sure that we are having a range of voices around the table.

"So it's definitely part of every conversation around succession planning."

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