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Where are the women? – a guest post from Julia Newbould, Morningstar managing editor

Where are the women?  by Julia Newbould, Morningstar managing editor

Women are still noticeable by their absence in senior management and board roles throughout Australia’s top companies. But finally, people are asking why.

At a Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) forum in Sydney this week, nearly 500 people gathered to hear ASX, Coca-Cola Amatil, and Investec chair David Gonski, Equal Opportunity in the Workplace Agency acting director Mairi Steele and CBA HR group executive Barbara Chapman debate the issue.

“I don’t know why it happened. It is not correct. It is something important and it does need to be fixed,” Gonski said.

“Often in life, when you have the motivation, it does get fixed.”

Gonski is optimistic that some groundswell of interest and understanding is suddenly going to transform the boardrooms of Australia. But for those of us who graduated nearly 20 years ago hearing very similar stories, it’s difficult to believe.

This week I have been told, on more than one occasion, that we are now ruled by women – The Queen, the Prime Minister, the Governor, Governor General, Premier and even Mayor in Sydney – but for those more cynical amongst us this isn’t quite true. The Queen has very little real power, and she will soon be succeeded by men. In fact, had she a brother, she would not now be ruling.

The Prime Minister was placed in her position by the faceless men who will depose her as soon as she fails in her role of saviour to a party in freefall. So often we see a woman appointed as a last resort – hoping that just by being a woman she will attract the empathetic votes of other women. Our besieged Premier is a case in point.

The comments that suggest that we have moved towards equality in the workplace are dangerous if they inspire complacence.

The numbers of women on boards and in senior executive positions is actually decreasing according to the statistics and the numbers are far less than 10 per cent. When women are making up more than 50 per cent of the graduates in economics and law and business degrees this is incomprehensible.

Gonski said: “It can’t be right to have 0, or 1 or even 2 women representatives on boards today. It’s a problem that needs to be solved by men”.

However, Gonski believes that we should allow boards to understand the benefits that diversity in gender makes and not resort to a quota system such as has been successfully implemented in Finland/Denmark.

Gonski fears that quotas may make women feel inferior if it is suggested their appointment is mandated not merited. He also believes that it would give a board a scapegoat if things go wrong.

A little more realistically, Mairi Steele said that it was important to keep the current momentum and suggested:

1.               We need to have more open sophisticated analysis of issues, well-researched evidence specific to the Australian context. The pros and cons of possible policy solutions – dump the laissez faire option – it has failed us to date.

2               A need to ensure a cultural change. It goes alongside the initiative of the ASX and others – not a tokenistic activity.  What I would advocate is that men, in particular, who hold key senior management roles look at the world through a gender prism. Question the assumptions you hold regarding looking at senior executive women.

While both Gonski and Steele spoke about what needed to be done, CBA group executive of HR Barbara Chapman said the company has already put in place targets of 35 per cent of women in senior management by 2015. In fact, the company has tied bonuses reaching these targets.

Yesterday, 1 July 2010 was the implementation date of the new ASX reporting rules where companies need to tell the ASX what they are doing to embrace diversity in their boards. It will take some time to see what progress Australian companies are making, but we will be watching closely.

Do you have a view on the ASX guidelines?  You can post your comments here on The SheEO Blog:


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