By CHRISTINE MILNE
I haven’t always believed in quotas for women on boards. In fact, I spent most of my life believing that if women had equal opportunities in education than the inequality of female representation in parliaments and business would be overcome. I’ve now changed my mind and I’m tired of waiting. Women are being shut out of Australia’s boardrooms, not because they can’t do the job but because of a culture of exclusion. It must change.
A quick glance around shows we have a female Governor-General, with an all female staff, and a female Prime Minister. We have female sports champions, millionaires, Vice-Chancellors of universities, lawyers, bus drivers, engineers and teachers. In the Australian Greens Party Room women out number the males six to four and in my office my senior staff are predominately women. Women in Australia participate in a broad spectrum of workplaces in a variety of ways and I applaud it.
Recently, I walked into a room of business people supposedly engaged in a progressive business agenda and it was wall-to-wall men, with only two female representatives. My immediate reaction was there is no way these are progressive business people because they haven’t recognised that they have a problem and therefore are unlikely to be forward thinkers or visionaries. That is the risk for Australia in a competitive global environment unless our boardrooms change. Women bring to the table important perspectives and profitability.
The business end of town and the boardrooms of Australia’s top companies continue to be a female free zone. The Australian Institute of Company Directors found that only 15.5% of directors on ASX200 company boards are women and a total of 49 of these 200 boards do not have any women at all. This means that when you step into one out of four of Australia’s top boardrooms you will not see a woman sitting at the table.
The case for changing who sits around that table is persuasive.
A few days ago, a new index to track the number of women on publicly listed companies in the Gulf region was launched, brought about by the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, that it would become compulsory for every government company in the UAE to have a female board member.
Quotas are also in place in Norway, France, Belgium, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. Australian companies are lagging behind. In 2012, 12.3% of board directors in Australia were women, while in the United States it was 16%. At the head of the boardroom table, 3% of Australian board chairs were women, compared with 5.3% in South Africa (Australian Bureau of Statistics).
In a world where money talks, it should be noted that companies with more women in senior management and board positions are more profitable. A study in 2011 (by not for profit research organisation, Reibey Institute) found that ASX500 companies with female directors delivered a 6.7% higher return on equity, over just a three year period, than those companies without any women on their boards. If that’s not enough incentive for change then it certainly should brush aside any doubts about directors duties to maximise shareholder profits.
Back at home the pressure for change is also mounting. The current prevalence of “boys clubs” has negative flow on effects for our society. A lack of women in senior executive positions can lead to an increase and continuation of the pay gap between the genders. It also leads to a culture which turns a blind eye to sexual harassment in the workplace, lack of flexible working hours and disregard for paid parental leave.