Women on boards: are we making any progress?

Ruth Medd FCPA (right) and Claire Braund, co-founders of Women on Boards. Photographer: Nic Walker

There are more women in leadership roles than 10 years ago, but Ruth Medd FCPA and Claire Braund say greater gender diversity will improve an organisation's IQ.

Debate about lack of diversity among leaders in public life is often accompanied by statistics that point to it in politics, but female representation on boards is worse.

According to the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), 34 per cent of federal parliamentarians are women, but they make up only 28.5 per cent of the boards of Australia’s largest 200 listed companies. When extended to the top 300, women account for just 19.1 per cent of board representation.

Regardless, co-founders of peak body Women on Boards (WOB) Ruth Medd FCPA and Claire Braund say there has been vast improvement in the past decade. Go back to 2010 and the figure for the top 200 was 8.7 per cent; for every 10 board members, less than one was female.

In 2006, when Medd and Braund established WOB, statistics such as these were not routinely compiled. It is due in great part to their efforts that we now have the numbers that we do. It is also largely due to Medd and Braund that percentages have dramatically improved in the past eight years.

Both hardly come across as firebrand feminists, or even women with a blistering desire to see women represented fairly on boards. They simply show themselves as highly practical and hardworking women who saw (and still see) a glaring stupidity in the corporate world.

Gender balance, as they see it, is not just about ensuring women have an equal say at the table, it is simply common sense. If most of us reasonably believe that Australian political governance is hamstrung by lack of females, then Australian corporate governance is similarly intellectually impoverished by its blandness.

Ruth Medd FCPA views gender balance as more than giving women an equal say at the table. She says it’s common sense. “Why did I get involved? I didn’t do it purely for the feminist cause,” Medd reveals. 

“I was becoming less interested in my then executive role and more interested in directorships.

“This led me to an interest in women in leadership, which led to my thinking about the number of women on boards. I just felt that the time had come. In 2000, there were lots of people talking about it but nobody was doing anything. I thought to myself: how about a bit of action? I met Claire in 2003 and it took until 2006 to fully realise what this action might look like.”

Related resource: CPA Australia's History of the Female Accountant in Australia

Medd originally came to the workplace with an IT and accounting (maths) background. She worked in IT for the Department of Defence in the 1970s, making her something of a rarity in the field.

“Back then they had no idea what IT was,” she laughs, “and possibly they found that even more unusual than the fact that I was a woman. But I was treated as an ‘officer and a gentleman’.”

While Medd says she never felt strongly prejudiced against on boards – indeed her first directorship was on the all-female National Foundation for Australian Women – Braund has a different story. In her early 20s, she worked as a reporter in the Tasmanian press gallery and in 1996 covered the Port Arthur massacre. The traumatic experience prompted a return to her family in New South Wales.

Her background had been in the agricultural sector and at age 27, she was tasked with setting up the Australian Beef Association (ABA). It was 1997 and she was working with some of the largest pastoral companies and most prominent figures in the agricultural community, including the Packer family, Stanbroke Pastoral Company and S. Kidman & Co.

She became executive officer to a board that was, apart from her, male, but was fired in a coup, despite building ABA membership to 1300 in 12 months. 

“Let’s just say that I eventually settled out of court” she says.

Changing times for women on boards

Braund met Medd while consulting to government in the aftermath, and it was around this time both say they felt the political zeitgeist changing. In the early 2000s, there were virtually no women on the boards of national sporting organisations. Post the success of female athletes at the Sydney Olympics, it was perceived to be a glaring omission.

Braund says there was also a nascent movement at the time, spearheaded in part by the National Foundation for Australian Women, which would become one of the contemporary advocacy bodies for gender equity. 

“From 2000 onwards, we were beginning to see more work being done on parental leave, child care and superannuation as well as the effect of marginal tax rates on women,” Braund says.

“A lot of the economic and social policies were coming out of a white, male-gendered parliament and legislature. Women were not being fairly impacted. We may have legislated for equality, but the policies weren’t engineering real equity.”

At first, WOB was dealing with a few non-profit organisations keen to get women on their boards. In 2019, WOB is offering 60 to 70 vacancies a week for women, of which half are paid board positions. A stream of ASX companies – and an increasing number of start-ups – approach WOB looking for talent.

Seeking women

WOB has a growing presence in Australia and the UK. In 2011, Braund became a Churchill Fellow for her research into gender balance on boards in Norway, France and the UK. It was then decided to export the WOB concept to the UK. From an initial membership in 2006 of 2500, WOB membership has grown to 23,000 in Australia, with a similar number in the UK.

WOB was deliberately set up as a profit-making enterprise with a strong social purpose and is now one of the major sources of information for women seeking board positions and the most important for corporates seeking female directors. Its platform boasts a sophisticated algorithm for boardroom vacancies, matchmaking candidates with jobs. In fact, Medd jests that WOB is now no more than a dating agency for women and boards.

“A lot of economic and social policies were coming out of a male-gendered, white parliament and legislature. Women were not being fairly impacted.” Claire Braund

It is, of course, much more, and recently partnered with global business school INSEAD, which is seeking to boost its profile in the ASEAN region. WOB will market INSEAD’s international directors program to its membership.

It also recently established WOBSX, a director-led, peer-to-peer support program designed to increase female membership on ASX boards. It has an ambitious KPI of 25 per cent of participants achieving ASX (or equivalent) directorships within two years of completing the program. 

In the process, Medd says WOB will try to move women into many of the private directorship positions – and hitherto unadvertised ASX positions – that are not normally accessible or even heard about.

Quotas for women

While the number of women on boards has increased steadily since WOB was founded, an issue that was emotive then – and remains so now – is quotas.

Medd says the move to introduce quotas came on the back of changes to the Corporate Governance Code in 2009 and 2013, which recognised diversity as a strategic business enabler.

Pioneers such as David Thodey at Telstra and Ralph Norris at Commonwealth Bank set gender “targets with teeth” for their organisations. It was a watershed and many big ASX firms started to pay attention.

Claire Braund says WOB wants at least 40 per cent of women in board and leadership roles across all sectors by 2025.“You could tell those who really meant it,” Braund says. “There were companies who began to set gender targets attached to KPIs of their various business units – actual measurable outcomes. If you didn’t achieve it there were consequences.”

In 2010, 60 ASX 200 companies didn’t have a single female on their board; now there are 10 such companies.

WOB now supports “targets with teeth” rather than quotas for listed boards. Medd says there is a psychological difference: “Targets have a sense of reward at the end of them, while quotas can put people’s backs up. The women think they’re not getting there on merit and the blokes think they’re being grossly disadvantaged.

“We say to companies: here are the tools and it’s now up to you to start putting it into your regular reporting regime and to tell people how you’re going. It’s just normal business.”

Medd believes her strong accounting background has been a virtual passport to directorships and that a CPA qualification is among the best way women – particularly young women – can achieve them.

“CPAs are in the box seat,” she says. “Don’t ask whether you are suitable as a young lawyer or accountant because you are already there, ladies.”

Be this as it may, it comes with a caveat. It’s one thing to have credentials, quite another to have the expertise to sell yourself to prospective companies.

“It’s all about telling what you have to offer boards,” Medd says. “It’s difficult for most people to work out their value proposition, [but] that is important.”

There are real opportunities now, and not just because gender balances are “flavour of the month”. Braund says research points to the fact that once a board consists of more than one-third women, the thinking of a company changes.

“We are in an era of disruption and we must have boards that are thinking differently,” she insists. In other words, diversity of sexes – indeed, all forms of diversity – can only improve an organisation’s IQ.

“In 2000, there were lots of people talking about it but nobody was doing anything. I thought to myself: how about a bit of action?” Ruth Medd FCPA

Where to for WOB from here? While quotas may never become part of the broader agenda for listed boards, Medd and Braund have serious metrics in mind for all sectors.

“We want at least 40 per cent of women involved in boards and in leadership roles across all sectors of the economy and the country by 2025, and we have quite a bit of work before we achieve that,” Braund states.

However, they do not think boards of the future need to be as “female-centric” as some may suggest. It is about diversity – not just gender – the two declare.

“Boards are going to be very different beasts in 10 years’ time,” Braund says. “They will need to look at their customer-client mix and consider ethnic mix, religious background and sexual orientation. It will be country versus city, young versus old, international versus national.”

“I think we’re making progress,” Medd adds. “There are success stories everywhere, but many people will try and take [the] focus off and say we have solved the problem. We haven’t. There must be eternal vigilance.”

Beyond 2000

Female representation on boards greatly declines beyond the ASX 200, falling from 28.5 per cent to 15.8 per cent across ASX 201-500 companies.

38 per cent of ASX 201-500 boards have no women members at all.

Female representation rises to 22.9 per cent on ASX 201-500 boards with an ASX 200 chair.

Women account for 10.3 per cent of board roles for ASX 201-500 companies in male-dominated industries, compared to 24.1 per cent across the ASX 200.

Newer companies are more likely to have greater gender diversity. Of the 83 companies that listed on the ASX in the past five years, 25.3 per cent have 30 per cent or more women on their boards, compared to only 13 per cent for companies listed more than five years ago.

16 per cent of ASX 201-500 boards have achieved or surpassed the 30 per cent target set by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD).

Read next: How do we get more women into leadership roles?

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