social roles

Increased boardroom diversity needs to go beyond gender


Corporate Australia has achieved greater gender equality on company boards in a year when sexual harassment scandals shook federal politics.

For the first time, every Australian company in the top ASX 200 now has at least one woman director. While this is good news, attention still needs to turn to getting more women into senior management roles, such as chief executive and chief financial officer positions. Women accounted for just 6 per cent of chief executives of ASX 300 companies as of June 30, the same as in 2017.

Terry Fitzsimmons from the University of Queensland’s Business School estimates it will take 65 years for women in Australia to reach parity with men in chief executive roles at companies that have 100 or more employees.

For many years, boards have been under the threat of quotas and pressure from investors – such as large superannuation funds and advocacy groups – to improve their gender diversity. A report by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre released last year showed that having more women on boards delivered greater company performance, profitability and productivity. It found that increasing women’s representation by 10 percentage points or more on the boards of ASX-listed companies led to a 4.9 per cent increase in the company market value.

Analysis from Chief Executive Women and the Australian Institute of Company Directors shows that female representation on boards has increased to more than a third – up from 8.3 per cent 12 years ago. While this is on a par or slightly behind some European countries, Australia is ahead of the United States, where the percentage of female directors on S&P 500 boards is 29.9 per cent.

But for those companies with just one or two women directors, are those female voices being heard? And how socially and ethnically diverse is their representation? A privately educated woman of Anglo-Celtic or European background will have a sharply different understanding of life to the industrious daughter of first-generation migrants educated in a western Sydney high school.

This same question of diversity is at issue in the political race for Fowler. While Senator Kristina Keneally is an immigrant, her experience is vastly different to that of migrants from south-east Asia and the Middle East – who make up a sizeable proportion of that electorate.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has acknowledged that more needs to be done across the country to improve gender equality.

Anne Hyland’s series of reports on company boards provide a stark contrast between the corporate and political circles when it comes to leadership on issues including gender diversity, workplace sexual harassment, climate change and more compelling vaccination advertising. While business has put a sharper focus on these issues, the corporate sector still needs to be more vigilant in improving performance and transparency.

Last year, a sexual harassment scandal involving AMP senior executive Boe Pahari led to the insurance group’s chairman David Murray resigning after shareholders raised concerns about the board’s poor handling of the complaint. AMP is now one of the few ASX 200 companies that has a female chief executive and chair. At QBE, a complaint by a female employee led to the departure of the company’s CEO Pat Regan.


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