If the pace of change for getting more women appointed to ASX-listed boards does not ramp up by 2015, we will be having “a very different conversation” regarding the use of gender quotas, according to Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.
Speaking on the question of ‘Are we there yet?’ at a Ceda leadership event in Sydney on Monday, Broderick said that despite some progress, recent ASX 200 appointment trends were “depressing”. In 2011, more than 28% of all new ASX 200 board appointments were women. But in 2012 that figure has dropped down to 25%
“So mathematically, even following a cycle where every board position is replenished, at this rate we can never have more than 25% of women on ASX 200 boards,” said Broderick.
“Unless the pace of change picks up, I do think there will be an increase in voices calling for quotas,” she added, noting that 2015 will be the turning point. “If those voices for quotas get loud and there is government traction, irrespective of which government we have … smart companies will realise they need to pick up the pace.”
Broderick pointed to the experience in Norway to show that companies were given an opportunity to work with voluntary targets in order to help deliver the business imperative required, before a conservative government then introduced a mandatory 40% quota.
Treating men and women identically in the workplace can only lead to great inequality if existing policies and practices are assumed to be neutral, but are actually still ingrained in the male norm, said Broderick. “The fact is men and women are different. Smart organiations are recognising that and applying that information and knowledge back into the business processes and systems that exist in the organisation.”
Rio Tinto Australia managing director David Peever said any discussion regarding women on boards must consider what’s being done to develop the pipeline, given women will often be taken from senior executive ranks to fill director roles.
Broderick agreed a significant shift for workplace gender equality must occur in the senior leadership ranks, and that the discussion regarding women on boards should not detract from that. Also, she noted the one woman on a board or in senior management was not good enough, and that the 40% gender target was still a necessary ambition.
Ernst & Young managing partner Lynn Kraus used her own experience to back the idea that board and management diversity must go beyond tokenism.
“Having been the sole female on our board a few years ago, and then the sole female in management only two years ago, we very much worked at a sub optimum level,” she said. “Nobody wanted to be the one to criticise my agenda … It wasn’t until we got to three or four women in our senior management team that we actually got the benefit.”
This article first appeared at Women’s Agenda.