What do women have to do to make it?

by 17 Oct 2006

It is hard not to be cynical (an attitude I discourage in others), but let’s face it – the recent report of the Equal Opportunity for Women Agency is the same old stuff. No change for women at the boardroom table.

It is certainly a long way from where those of us taking our first appointments on to boards in the ‘80s – and who saw it as important women’s business –imagined it might be by now. Naively, we thought that we were just the beginning of a trend.

It’s all so girly really. We do a good job and think we will be rewarded and recognised. Not so. In senior corporate life the software is unwritten and we need mentors to unravel it, while learning to push and shove and highlight our successes.

When I discuss this with men (no mean achievement as it is not the conversation most men want to have), they explain painstakingly that the first women on boards were atypical trailblazers, few and far between and not easily replicated. They had their rewards by bringing about change, and now we just need to let things take their course and it will all work out for the best.

Also, they have developed a new profile of a desirable woman director: a woman with technical skills such as law or accounting; someone safe, a good worker (team player with the boys perhaps?); and not into all that old-fashioned feminist stuff. Sorry, I didn’t really mean to mention the ‘F’ word –so ‘70s really.

If we look at the numbers, we can judge whether letting things take their course is working. The results of the 2006 Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) Australian Census of Women in Leadership showed the number of female CEOs has not increased since 2003.

Of the ASX 200 companies, a mere six (3 per cent) are led by women and the number of female board directors has increased slightly to 8.7 per cent since 2002.

Reaction to this news was startling. “It takes time,”the Chairman of Suncorp is quoted as saying, and “any board should have one woman”. This is a no-brainer in 2006 and easy to fix. His prediction that there will be significant changes in the next few years because there are highly qualified women appearing on headhunter’s lists is not persuasive. For the most part, executive search firms are as risk averse and resistant as the corporate boards. They have also had names of competent women for years. There are exceptions and the best are owned by women. They see beyond gender and know how to address the invisible criteria with their clients. They do more than reflect the status quo and broaden the concept of merit, which, like beauty, can be in the eyes of the beholder.

They also do wider research and can probably advise their clients of the evidence provided in the2004 Female FTSE Report, published by Cranfield University’s School of Management, which stated that the 69 companies with women directors had recorded an average return on equity (ROE) of 13.8 per cent, compared with 9.9 per cent for companies with all male boards. Catalyst, a US not-for-profit organisation focusing on female advancement in the workplace, reached broadly similar performance conclusions in its 2004 report. The evidence is neither conclusive nor negligible but there are good commonsense reasons to give it credence.

Boards could lead and be bold as governments were in the mid-80s when they decided to address this issue of women on boards under the broader heading of leadership and decision making opportunities for women.

They took risks with women who they believed would be responsible non-executive directors. Some called it tokenism. Others ranted about unfair and preferential treatment. But for the most part, it worked and some statutory authorities began to look like the communities they serve. It is time for business to take the lead now.

When women come to me asking for advice about how to get a board position, I discourage them from leaving line management. We need more women with executive experience in the pipeline, yet I well understand the ambition to be an effective and integral part of the governance of Australia’s major institutions.

As a university chancellor, for a decade I witnessed the increase in the number of women graduates. Young women have responded to the advice that they acquire more skills and education. They are graduating ahead of their male counterparts in many previously male-dominated faculties. After a decade in the workforce they are falling behind.

What do they have to do to make it?

Wendy McCarthy, company director and management consultant

Comments? Email craig.donaldson@lexisnexis.com.au.

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