Not so wizard in Oz

Not so wizard in Oz

It wasn’t until I started, as part of the consulting work which I’m doing for emberin, researching the status quo in Australian business circles with regard to women in corporate life, that I realised exactly where Australia currently sits on the gender diversity totem pole.

And the answer is … low. Here’s some data which I researched for an emberin paper on global best practices, sourced from such respected bodies as Catalyst, the FTSE 100 2009 survey of women on boards and Australian body the Equal Opportunities for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) – pretty shocking, isn’t it?

Country % of women as board directors
United States 14%
Canada 13%
United Kingdom 12%
Australia 8.30%

As I read and researched for my paper, it became clear that the (in)famous Aussie macho, blokey culture, described here in a piece on The Glass Hammer, and also in an interview with emberin founder Maureen Frank, is a huge part of the problem.

The very few women who have made it to the top of a minority of leading Australian companies describe a sometimes hostile environment built of what federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick calls both “belief barriers” (cultural convictions around the maternal role and what an “ideal” worker looks like) and “structural barriers”, such as issues around childcare and attitudes towards flexible working.

One of the ways in which this culture may end up being changed via force is through the introduction of some new legislation which will apply to Australia’s top 200 listed companies. About six months ago, the Australia Securities Exchange (ASX) dropped a bombshell in which they outlined their proposals to expand the existing corporate governance principles to include a mandatory gender diversity policy, thus parachuting diversity to the top of the agenda for those ASX 200 companies.

Described by 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.

In essence, the proposals mean that publicly listed companies will need to consider reviewing existing diversity policies, or creating new ones, to cover board and company wide diversity initiatives.

The recommendations will require listed companies to:

• Establish a “diversity policy” that includes measurable objectives relating to gender diversity as set by the board;
• Disclose in their annual report the measurable objectives for achieving gender diversity as set by the board in accordance with the diversity policy, and –
• Disclose in the annual report the proportion of women employees in the whole organisation, in senior executive positions and on the board.

The first step for ensuring compliance with these new regulations (currently scheduled to be implemented on 1 January 2011, with recommendations to be finalised by 30 June 2010) – is for listed companies to prepare a diversity policy for their boards and to create a diversity strategy to support the policy, which is of course where emberin come in.

What I think will be particularly interesting will be what will happen to those companies if they DON’T comply; presumably, there’ll be fines but will the next step be to follow in the steps of Norway (2008) and France (2009) and introduce quotas for female representation on boards?

The “quota” word is always a real debating point in this space; for some, it’s regarded as the only way to force specific and measurable change, and to accept that the situation of low female representation won’t fix itself; for others, it’s the complete opposite of a meritocracy and is tokenistic and insulting to women’s talent, implying as it does (perhaps) that they’re only present on the board or in the leadership team in order to make up the numbers.

I was reminded of this when I went to register for a diversity conference and was faced with the following pop-up survey as part of the registration process:

“Do you think the UK should impose quotas to increase the number of women at the boardroom level?”

The instant answers were interesting but unhelpful:

53% voted yes, 47% voted no.

My own view on quotas is that they should be the last chance saloon, an “if all else fails” tool if establishing and monitoring targets hasn’t worked and nor have any of the other cultural change mechanisms available to companies who are really serious about increasing the number of women in key corporate roles.

A few months ago, Deutsche Telekom (DT) announced that they were introducing quotas in order to fill 30% of their middle and upper management jobs with women by 2015. This is a bold move and the company hopes to shift the female numbers from the 2008 level of 13%. The BBC report went on to say that DT will use tools like its recruitment policy and executive development programs to reach the targets, in addition to expanding the company’s parental leave, childcare and flexible working programs.

But, as with the ASX directive, it is unlikely that this comprehensive suite of measures will succeed without the final missing ingredient of monitoring – and, in all honesty, some kind of punitive measures.


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