20/01/2011 - 00:00

Groundswell for women

20/01/2011 - 00:00


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THE small number of women on the boards of Australia’s leading companies is clearly at the forefront of the minds of leading Western Australian directors.

Groundswell for women

THE small number of women on the boards of Australia’s leading companies is clearly at the forefront of the minds of leading Western Australian directors.

At the WA Business News forum, the problem was discussed extensively, unprompted, and invoked strong discussion, clearly based on key policy initiatives released last by both the ASX and the Australian Institute of Company Directors seeking to increase diversity at the board table.

Leading WA director Neil Hamilton said he had been actively looking for female directors and noted the recent appointments of Fiona Balfour to Metcash and Rebecca McGrath to Oz Minerals, both companies he chairs.

“What is happening is there were a small number of women who had lots of boards, and if you went to that group it was very difficult,” Mr Hamilton said.

“We have just made two first-time appointments and they are very capable women.”

To many, the issue of women on boards had reached an impasse. Growth in the early part of the decade had stalled or even gone backwards until major institutions such as the ASX and AICD pushed the case for more diversity, notably in gender.

The AICD’s June 30 ‘Boardroom Report’ stated that the number of women appointed to ASX200 boards had surged in the first six months of the calendar year. In that period, 24 per cent of all new appointees were female compared to 5 per cent in 2009 and 8 per cent in each of the two previous years.

At June 30, women represented 9.2 per cent of ASX200 board members, compared to 8.3 per cent at the beginning of calendar 2010.

Tony Howarth said the new reporting guidelines and more general demands from the community had created a groundswell.

“The changes that are being made are forcing you to look and once you look there is a much bigger pool than you think,” he said.

Michael Smith said it was only a matter of time before things would change, but there was a caveat – not enough women were moving through to the top levels of management to provide a future stream of new directors to refresh the ranks as the first major cohort of directors retires.

“It is women in the executive ranks that is a much bigger problem,” Mr Smith said.

“Over time there will be, let’s say, 300 female directors appointed.

“I think there are sufficient candidates to fill that gap.

“The choke point will ultimately be women coming from the executive ranks.

“The point I am making is I think we’ll be alright for a while but we’ll get caught because of that issue.”

Intriguingly, Diane Smith-Gander had some advice for would-be female directors that appeared contrary to what is considered the perceived wisdom of establishing oneself on a community sector board.

“Can you move to more corporate directorships through the not-for-profit path like sport or whatever?” asked Ms Smith rhetorically.

“Many women come to me and ask ‘what is the secret’, obviously I must have all the answers having got this job, and many people are telling them to get some experience, get two or three of these opportunities.

“My view on that is it is a bad idea. It jams up your calendar and typecasts you.”

Mr Hamilton backed this point.

“You almost make yourself unelectable because you are typecast,” he said.

“The last place I would go is to people with experience of not for profits, we just went for executives.”

Of course, the directors did not want to seem opposed to not-for-profit groups, they were simply stating that the community sector should not be seen as a stepping stone.

Mr Smith was also recruiting women to boards he is involved with.

“My advice to a marvellously credentialed candidate yesterday was just to ask, don’t go around the corner networking, just go straight to the board and ask.”



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