Female leaders call for quotas to boost women in senior ranks

Two of Australia’s top female leaders last night called for quotas to be introduced to ensure better representation of women in board rooms and senior management teams.


Former Victorian chief commissioner of police Christine Nixon, and Margaret Jackson, former director of Qantas and ANZ Bank and director of Flexigroup, were talking last night at a function held by NAB in Melbourne to celebrate International Women’s Day.

The moderator of last night’s panel, Barbara West, director of consultancy 100% Project and partner at Culture Works, pointed out that in 2008 Australia has fallen to 21st position from 15th position in 2006 in the Global Gender Gap Report presented at this year’s World Economic Forum.

West says recent data from Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace shows that figures on female participation in the workplace have lost ground since 2006. “More than half the companies in the ASX200 have no women on their boards,” she says. “Only 2% of chairs and chief executives of boards are women, only 8.3% of board directors are women, and only 10% at the executive management level are women.” West says Australia is behind other counties in “almost everything”.

Both Nixon and Jackson expressed disappointment at the lack of women in senior management roles, saying they expected far greater progress by now and that they were supportive of quotas. Jackson says she has changed her position on quotas because the better representation of women expected in senior levels of management has not occurred.

One of the big problems is that men at senior positions still hire within their networks. Jackson says that women in exit interviews say that men in senior positions like to surround themselves with men “who look like them and talk like them”.

West says that Norway was an example of a country where quotas had worked. In 2003, the Norwegian Government introduced a legal requirement that 40% of boards be filled by females.

By 2008 most of them had complied, and the proportion of female board members had increased from 7% in 2003 to 39% in July 2008.

Quotas are important, Nixon says. She also pointed out that one of the ways she changed the “blokes” culture in the police force was to get the “boys” to stop just considering each other for positions.

“You have to open up the process,” she says. Nixon says she would ask for regular updates to ensure women were being promoted to senior roles. She also would pull women out of specialist jobs and give them experience they would not get otherwise that would then assist them gain promotion.

NAB’s executive general manager of business and private banking, Joseph Healy, who was on the panel, rejected the calls for quotas, saying that people should be promoted on merit and based on results. He says he is very optimistic about the next three years and that he expects the top 30% to 40% of people at senior management level to be women.

But Jackson says things are not changing. She also pointed out that women are “tall poppy” targets. She used Pacific Brands chief executive Sue Morphet, who was attacked by politicians and the media last week over the retrenchment of 1850 workers and her pay, as an example. Jackson pointed out that there had been many companies that had shed far more jobs by senior managers who were paid a lot more than Morphet.

Nixon also points out that women often lack the confidence to apply for jobs if they lack specific skills. “They will often not apply for jobs if they only have seven out of the eight criteria, but blokes will apply if they only have three of the criteria,” she says. “Women have to get better at putting themselves forward.”

And Nixon says that it is essential that once women get to the top of the ladder, it is very important that they put the ladder down and help others up. “Some women get there and think it doesn’t matter about the others.” She says she gets annoyed when she sees this. “I call them on it,” she said. “And you should too.”


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