23/01/2007 - 22:00

Social, cultural factors behind board shortage

23/01/2007 - 22:00

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Women remain significantly under-represented in the boardroom, with only marginal increases in the number of women directors and companies with at least one woman on their board during the past two years.

Social, cultural factors behind board shortage

Women remain significantly under-represented in the boardroom, with only marginal increases in the number of women directors and companies with at least one woman on their board during the past two years.

Despite advances in childcare services and the adoption of more flexible working environments, many female directors say psychological barriers and family commitments remain the two major roadblocks for women aiming for board positions.

Nova Energy Ltd chair Erica Smyth, who has occupied a number of managerial positions and directorships in the minerals and petroleum industry, said that although there had been an increase in the number of women coming through the senior ranks, children presented women with a challenging juggling act.

“It’s hard to keep women in the industry past 10 to 15 years. Part of it is having children and making the choice to work part time, and the minute you work part time it becomes harder to stay on the path of keeping the contacts and networks and the things that get you on to boards,” she told WA Business News.

Ms Smyth said the working environment at senior levels at some companies could also deter some women and encourage them instead to start their own businesses.

“I think some women are finding that the internal politics of many companies, or the behaviour, is not satisfactory when you get into the senior positions…and they make a choice and decide they want to have their own business.”

Ms Smyth said that, in her experience, lack of self-confidence could also hold some women back from accepting promotions, which could, in turn, lead to less exposure to potential board opportunities.

“[Women] want to be about 90 per cent sure they can do the next job before they make the move, so they’re less inclined to take the risk,” she said.

“Some women will. It’s a generalisation, but there’s a large enough proportion that will do that.”

Former print and television journalist, and Telstra Businesswoman of the Year recipient, Valerie Davies, said her interest in joining boards was sparked after being offered a place on the board of Westralian Sands, which would become Iluka Ltd, while serving on the board of the Fremantle Hospital.

Ms Davies was then offered a board position at Integrated Group Ltd before that company’s float in 1999, and later board positions at Tourism Australia (2004) and HBF Health Funds (2005).

Ms Davies said her experience in the media, and as director of her own communications consultancy, allowed her to bring in a different skill set to the board mix.

“To be a good board member you need to be across a whole range of things to be a generalist; you need to have a good general business acumen, but I think you also need to have independence of thinking and to be a critical analyst,” she said.

Ms Davies said balancing family responsibilities with her career was a challenge, and credits her decision to have children in her 20s as the reason why she now has the time to engage in the professional pursuits of her choice.

“I juggled it all, as women do,” she said. “We had our children younger [at 26 and 31 years of age], and what it does give you at this time of life is that the children are grown up.

“For me now it’s a great time of life because I don’t have the responsibilities any more.”

Ms Davies suggested that, as more women entered management roles, the gender imbalance in the boardroom would start to correct itself.

“We have more women in management, and some women are choosing not to have children. So I think you’ll see the imbalance change because of those two factors,” she said.

“Good women board members recommend other good women, so I think there’s a big role to play with women helping each other.”

Cathryn Curtin is currently a director of Coretrack Ltd and Neptune Marine Services Ltd, and soon-to-be-listed Costarella Designs. She also served as a director of the WA Department of Education, and said the desire to utilise both her knowledge and industry experience drove her to seek out board positions in companies and industries in which she had an interest.

“Because my background is in that [education] area, even though I also had a financial background through my studies, I felt I wasn’t able to use that as constructively as I would have liked to. I really needed to step outside that mould,” Ms Curtin said.

She said while women could be more proactive in seeking out board positions they were interested in, it was also up to the boards to seek out women and broaden their field of vision when looking for potential directors.

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