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Across Boundaries: What the UK can learn from Australia about Women on Boards

A Happy business woman with other colleagues in the backgroundBy Cleo Thompson (London), founder of The Gender Blog

As the debate around the use of quotas to increase the number of women on UK boards continues, so does the need to look at what’s working around the world to shift the gender diversity needle.

Earlier this month, the European Professional Women’s Network invited Claire Braund, co-founder of Women on Boards, the leading advocate for improving gender diversity on Australian boards, to a London event to speak about the Australian story and outline Australia’s track record of success around women gaining access to board positions in business, government, community and not-for-profit sectors.

Braund co-founded Women on Boards – which now has 11,500 members – in 2006 and she is currently in the UK as part of her Churchill Fellowship award, a bursary with which she is examining the impact of boardroom quotas in Norway and the progress of the public policy debate in the UK and France.

Hosted by investment services company Mercer, the EPWN audience was welcomed by Mercer’s UK CEO Alan Whalley, who also serves as the executive sponsor of the Vine, the company’s network for women. Braund outlined the introduction and impact of the new Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) regulations, announced in December 2009 and described by Australian federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick as “the first structural intervention we’ve had”. The plan will force companies to publish a gender breakdown of directors and senior employees and to set both objectives and targets for gender diversity.

Aussie rules

Twenty-six thousand companies are currently listed on the ASX, many of them in traditionally very “male” industries such as minerals and mining. The Women on Boards team is currently focusing on the top 500 companies and have written to the chairs of the ASX 500, offering to help with providing shortlists of suitable female candidates for board roles, in addition to working with candidates to improve their board readiness and their networking and connections.

Braund also shared some Australian statistics with the audience, including:

  • 45% of the labour force is female
  • As are 60% of graduates
  • But only 27% of senior managers
  • The gender pay gap (“much of it concealed in bonuses”) is 17.2%
  • And there are 72 companies on the ASX 200 without a woman on the board.

What works down under?
Citing companies such as the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Accenture as bright spots of best practice, Braund suggested that the things which work look like this:

  • Are men working flexibly too or is it regarded as just a female workplace norm to do so?
  • Does the CEO participate in the diversity council and other associated activities?
  • Does the company support training such as bias awareness courses?
  • Is diversity embedded into line management roles and not just “owned” by HR?

And what counts in your career?

Before the evening moved on to a panel discussion, Braund shared her views and experience on how to progress your career to board level:

  • Have a plan
  • Know how to influence people
  • Find sponsors and advocates
  • Broaden your experience
  • Know your worth and be prepared to negotiate on salary and conditions (“Ask for the pay rise!”)
  • Have more than one boss – move around
  • Above all: be visible
  • And always remember – you’re a role model, too, with responsibilities.

“Quotas are legislated, targets are voluntary”

Moderated by Robert Baker, a senior client manager at Mercer who sits on the Vine steering committee, the panel also featured former Australian Parliamentarian and government minister the Hon Ros Kelly (“you’re behind your colonial brothers and sisters when it comes to this stuff”), Siobhan Martin, leader of Mercer’s EMEA HR function and Charlotte Sweeney of Nomura who also co-chairs EPWN in London.

Australians Kelly and Martin were very clear that they see London in particular and the UK in general, as a tough market in which to make tangible gender diversity progress.

“London is a difficult city – it’s hard to network when you have such long commutes at the end of the working day,” suggested Kelly. Mention was also made of the cultural issues caused by the perceived “old boys’ club” and the current lack of structural interventions currently in place, in spite of this year’s Davies Review.

When asked what she thought of the always contentious quotas issue, Kelly responded that “[Australian Prime Minister] Julia Gillard wouldn’t be where she is today without quotas” and described quotas as a way of getting women “into the tent” – so that, once there, they could prove their worth and value to the organisation.

Stop fixing the women!

The audience of around fifty men and women took every opportunity to ask direct and at times blunt questions of the panel, who concluded by sharing their closing thoughts:

  • Martin, as a piece of advice to working mums: “Learn to let go – you don’t have to do everything yourself.”
  • Sweeney: “Companies are focusing too heavily on fixing the women, but in fact they need to look more inwardly and fix themselves.”
  • Braund: “Gender is not a women’s issue! Companies should acknowledge and look at their blokey cultures.”

And finally the last word went to former minister Ros Kelly who told the room:

“Norway has banned single sex schools [since 1884]. Imagine the impact on the UK if we tried it here!”

Given that, as London based commentator Mariella Frostrup has pointed out, “there are more blokes called Dave and Nick [products of all male educational establishments] in government than there are women MPs” – she may have a point.

0 Response

  1. The transparency and communication about board openings provided by the Australian Women on Boards sets a benchmark for other countries, cities and organizations working toward increasing women on boards. Thanks for showcasing their work.

  2. I’m a regular beneficiary of Women on Boards – not only did I receive a board appointment some years ago now through their notice board (and have since been voted in as Chairman of that board) but I also use their data frequently in my presentations, career coaching and gender balance consulting work. Claire and Ruth are certainly making inroads and the women of Australia’s boardrooms thank them!