In the early 1990s the case for improving gender diversity on boards was waved away with the argument that more women moving through the ‘the pipeline’ would result in them achieving board positions.
The pipeline was the mythical term given to career progression for women. It was assumed that greater numbers of female graduates in key disciplines such as law, accounting, engineering, science and medicine would flow into management and senior executive roles – just as their male counterparts did.
Ten years later when the pipeline failed to deliver, some progressive companies woke up to the economics of the situation and implemented gender diversity and workforce strategies to assist women climb the ladder in corporate Australia. These included; flexible work arrangements, options to trade additional leave for remuneration, employer provided childcare, paid parental leave and the implementation of Equal Employment Opportunity including anti harassment and discrimination policies.
The case for gender diversity
While these softer policies have been a great step towards improving workplace conditions, they have had little if any effect on making the workforce more gender diverse. In fact the percentage of women in senior leadership in ASX companies has fallen in recent years.
The reason for this is that few businesses have any sort of measurable or hard targets for gender diversity. This is despite an increase in the accountability and reporting requirements for all other aspects of the business like sales targets.
Targets for gender diversity at all levels of an organisation are essential if a company is serious about utilising all of its available workforce capital and addressing the paucity of women at the top.
What are companies doing about it?
Some have seen the light. Rob Thomas, the Chair of ASX listed Tower Australia, and his board have introduced KPIs around gender diversity in the performance packages of the CEO and senior executives.
In Germany, Deutsche Telekom are imposing quotas for female managers to more than double women-held upper and middle management jobs to 30 per cent by the end of 2015. It is the first of the 30 companies in the blue-chip DAX index to impose such a quota and will use tools like recruitment policy and executive development programs to reach the targets.
The company aims to create momentum and pressure internally, especially given that 60 percent of German graduates are women. It views its move as “not about hiring women just for the sake of hiring women but about achieving a competitive edge by tapping into talent.”
Australia is dragging the chain
Australia seriously runs the risk of falling even further behind the OECD nations if it does not get on top of this issue. Our statistics are woeful; only 8.7percent of company directors and 10.7 percent of senior executives on the ASX200 are women. That is 128 boardroom seats of 1474 on ASX200 are occupied by women.
At its 2009 AGM, David Jones Chair Bob Savage said that the reason there wasn’t more women on ASX boards was due to the lack of prospective candidates and more work was needed to help and encourage women through the management ranks so that they had the necessary skills to be appointed to boards. In the same week Chris Thomas, partner at Egon Zehnder asserted there is no boys club, only inability of significant corporations and leading professional firms to facilitate women into senior levels.
Women on Boards believes that directors, CEOs and senior executives across all ASX companies had a responsibility over the past 20 years towards doing something about the dearth of top end female talent some are currently lamenting.
It is not good enough to say that the reason there are fewer women at board level is because there aren’t enough in the feeder pool. Leaders have obligations to shareholders and society to ensure that their organisations are the best they can be. This does not mean ignoring half the talent.
So what do we do about it?
1.Target and report
Targets need to be set for gender diversity management, executive and board ranks which then need to be included in KPIs.
Reports need to be made against targets which will shortly be mandated under the proposed changes to the Corporate Governance Principles and Recommendations which include a recommendation that entities listed on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) disclose in their annual report; their achievement against gender objectives set by their board; and the proportion of women on the board, in senior management and employed throughout the whole organisation.
2. Change the culture
In many instances women are simply not seen. They find it difficult to get on the radar of chairs, company directors, CEOs and senior executives with the power to promote them. The same is true in the boardroom where stories about women being passed over for comment are common.
Existing cultural norms actively protect the status quo at the top. Those with the power to ‘gift’ or influence a directorship or senior role tend not to look beyond traditional sources to fill positions. This has implications not only for women, but for company performance.
It is frustrating for many women who cannot seem to ‘cut through’. Often it’s a case of men who just don’t get it – it is like a filter has been placed across their eyes. While this can be understood, if not accepted in the older generation it is younger men (and women) who are mentored by these dinosaurs that is worrying.
We need significant intervention at all levels of society to start the major cultural shifts we require in this country to increase the participation of women in our economy and society.
There are a huge number of skilled and experienced – but increasingly frustrated – professional women, who are ready to step into senior management, executive and board roles – and their time is NOW.
Claire Braund is the Executive Director of Women on Boards.
About Women on Boards
Women on Boards is a social enterprise to improve the gender balance on Australian company boards. Women on Boards brokers women into board roles, offers professional development and mentoring programs, hosts excellent events and ensures a high level of dynamic interaction across its large and influential network.
For more information visit the website: http://www.womenonboards.org.au/
Photo credit: Chai Hoon Yap – Fotolia.com