Leadership & Management

Australia one of only three countries to exceed 30% women on top-listed company boards

Health Industry Hub | August 2, 2021 |
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Leadership & Management: Australia lags behind most of the Western world on statistics surrounding workplace gender equality. Our ranking in the World Economic Forums’ annual Global Gender Gap Report has slipped from 15th in the world in 2006 to 50th in 2021. It is against this background that corporate Australia has achieved a remarkable, trend defying result.

Australia is one of only three countries in the world (others being Canada, UK) to ‘break the glass ceiling’ and exceed 30% of women on top-listed company boards without legislated quotas, according to University of Queensland research.

UQ Business School researchers Dr Terry Fitzsimmons, Dr Miriam Yates and Professor Victor Callan identified the factors that saw Australia leap from 8.3% women on ASX200 boards in 2008 to 33.6% in 2021.

The research and report Towards Board Gender Parity was supported by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) and Australian Gender Equality Council (AGEC).

Lead researcher and Director of AGEC Dr Fitzsimmons said the accomplishment was remarkable considering Australia had a limited pipeline of women reaching ASX CEO roles and that only 5% of CEO roles in the ASX were presently held by women.

“Our research reveals a truly encouraging result, that Australia is leading progress for women on boards at an international level despite the challenges women still face to achieve gender parity, especially in the corporate landscape,” Dr Fitzsimmons said.

The Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) CEO and Managing Director Angus Armour said the AICD was pleased to support the research and was hopeful that the report would help invigorate the conversation on diversity and the work still required to improve outcomes for women.

“The Australian experience is a fascinating example of corporate-led change without government intervention,” Mr Armour said.

“This warrants investigation so that other jurisdictions might gain insights from our experience.”

The study revealed the number of women joining ASX200 boards in Australia grew by approximately 2% each year from 2009 to 2021.

“2009 was a catalyst year that would change the representation of women on company boards in the country,” the study’s co-author Dr Yates said.

“The nation had its first female Prime Minister and Governor-General; we were in the grip of the Global Financial Crisis and the media in many countries was highlighting the lack of diversity on company boards.”

The research found key individual and organisational influencers increased female acceptance on publicly-listed boards, including financial media outlets, prominent ASX50 chairs, the 30% Club and AICD campaigns.

“Two significant outcomes emerged which underpinned progress for the next decade – the ASX Corporate Governance Council Recommendations in relation to reporting on diversity and the AICD’s Chair’s Mentoring Program,” Dr Fitzsimmons said.

The study interviewed more than 30 senior leaders and influencers to identify several inhibitors to progress in achieving gender parity in executive leadership roles and boards.

“The two greatest barriers from our research were the lack of universal, affordable child care and persistent gender role stereotypes,” Dr Fitzsimmons said. 

“While we’ve broken one ceiling, we will hit another as women try to progress into C-Suite roles until we address these issues.”

AGEC Chair, Ms Coral Ross AM said reflection on the past and how Australia had managed to achieve a target of over 30% women on boards would help shape progress for the future.

“By examining how we got to where we are, the report and research provides recommendations to chart a path forward to reach gender parity in the board room,” Ms Ross said

Andrea Staines OAM, Non-ExecutiveDirector and Chair, said “There is a saying, ‘What gets measured gets managed’. Gender, cultural and background diversity is very important in leading a company, so I think diversity goals are important. I’ve been a member of Chief Executive Women and Women on Boards for over ten years, during which I’ve been advocating that we look beyond ASX200 data to ensure women can be respected for board roles on all sizes of ASX companies.

“I think there is too much focus on ASX200 gender diversity targets. I have seen women not seek roles in the ASX300 companies and beyond, even though those roles would be excellent experience for ASX200-type roles. It’s all about the spotlight – other levels of ASX and non-listed companies haven’t been in the spotlight as heavily with respect to gender diversity on boards, and their numbers aren’t as good. Going forward, our targets for women on boards should now be at least 40% female.”

The report made seven recommendations, including establishing a formal alliance of key influencers, adopting a 40/40/20 target for board gender parity and the reinvigoration of board readiness and mentoring programs to bring more women to ASX300 roles and beyond.

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