Thirty-seven global brands have risen to meet a 30% threshold of women board members in the past year, but another 37 that once met the threshold have backslid, highlighting ongoing concerns around equality in leadership.
Australian-based Femeconomy regularly collates a list of what it calls ‘approved’ brands — that is, those that are at least 50% owned by women, or that have boards made up of at least 30% women.
In the Femeconomy Retail Gender Equality Progress Report 2021, founder Jade Collins said a December update to the list saw 37 new businesses approved, including big names such as Nike, Levi’s, Bose and even QBE Insurance and JB Hi-Fi.
At the same time, 37 brands also slid backwards in terms of gender representation, and were removed from the approved brands list.
That means the total number of approved brands remains at 860, up from 700 when the first report launched five years ago.
Among those removed from the list are fashion brands Cotton On, Forever 21 and Jigsaw, as well as cosmetics brands Aseop and Body Shop, and automotive brands Land Rover and Jaguar.
Some 11 of the removed brands fall under the ‘banking and insurance’ banner. They include Bank of Melbourne, AIG, Westpac, St. George and BankSA.
Most of these changes were due to changes in board composition, or company acquisitions or divestments, Collins wrote in the report.
Speaking to SmartCompany, she suggests this net stagnation shows representation of women in leadership roles is still “at a threshold level”.
Businesses appear to be hitting the 30% target and stopping there. That means if they lose just one woman from the board, they fall below the threshold again.
The 30% is a significant tipping point, says Collins.
“That’s where research shows the voices of the minority group become heard in their own right.”
The result is disappointing and a little frustrating, says Collins, but she also recognises that different businesses are at different points in their journeys.
When it comes to inclusion and diversity, she places importance on the setting of targets, and tracking and measuring progress.
And, of course, this goes deeper than gender diversity, says Collins. The same measures should be applied to diversity of race, culture, age, ability — the list goes on.
“It should be a comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategy when organisations are looking at their leadership,” she says.
“Is it representative of their customer base? Is it representative of the communities in which they’re operating?
“A lot of the time, the answer will be no.”
The myth of meritocracy
SmartCompany has covered diversity of representation on boards in the past, and it tends to draw out discussions around merit and quotas.
Some argue businesses simply choose the best board member for the job, but Collins rejects this thesis.
First and foremost, research has shown diverse leadership increases profitability, she says, and institutional investors are starting to ask tough questions around gender diversity.
There’s also no shortage of qualified and merit-worthy women around.
“That’s a myth,” Collins says.
“Are they saying that merit is not distributed equally among men and women?” she asks.
“That argument is saying men are more meritorious than women … We know that’s not an accurate argument, it doesn’t hold up to any form of scrutiny.”
What we’re dealing with is a structural legacy, she argues. Making a change requires a change of mindset, and a new cultural narrative around what a leader looks like.
“It’s something we need to keep talking about.”
You can see the full report of newly approved and un-approved businesses here.