Women on Boards is a national program to improve the gender balance on Australian company boards through skills based selection. The program funds research, holds high-level networking and mentoring events and actively promotes women onto boards. The website is a meeting place for current directors and aspirant directors, who are registered with the WoB program.
Ruth Medd is Chair of Women on Boards. She is also President of the National Foundation for Australian Women, Chair of Australian Ethical Super Ltd, a director and chair of the Finance Committee of The Infants Home, Ashfield and a past member of the NSW Casino Control Authority. She is a speaker on topics such as wealth creation, corporate governance and the Internet. In previous roles Ruth was the Executive Director of the Australian Association of National Advertisers and held senior positions with Telstra, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal and the Federal government.
Interview with Ruth Medd
What is the proportion of board members who are women in Australia ? What are the more significant trends that are worth noting in the statistics? For example, are there any indications that certain economic sectors have a higher representation of women on boards than other sectors?
There are a number of statistics depending on the sample chosen. The EOWA survey (http://www.eowa.gov.au/) looks at the top 200 or so companies; WOB looked at the top 500 ASX listed companies plus a number of rural entities in 2004. A figure of about 8% is usually used. EOWA survey of 2005 came in at 8.6% up from 8.4% and 8.2% in previous surveys.
The WOB survey found that women are better represented on the top 100 ASX companies as compared to the ASX 500 as a whole.
It is certainly true that some sectors have a far better representation of women. There is a significant variation by industry with Banking & Finance most likely to have one or more women board members followed by Process & Petroleum, Research & Development, Insurance, Health & Community Services and Utilities.
Least likely to have a woman on the board are Hotels Restaurants & Leisure, Wholesale & Distribution, Technology Hardware & Equipment, Pharmaceuticals & Biotechnology, Telecommunications, Health Care Equipment & Services and Transport & storage.
Another interesting figure from EOWA is that about 12% of senior executives in the companies surveyed are women – not a very high figure. This has implications for the source of future women directors.
Why do you believe that more women should be on Australian boards?
There are many reasons why there should be more women on boards; and in positions of leadership and influence generally. It is about talent, diversity and equity.
Firstly, it’s good business sense. If business fails to tap the talent of 50% of the population then it is missing out. It also fails to access the breadth and richness of views that comes from having a non homogeneous mix of perspectives.
There is good evidence that diversity of views will impact on profit results and corporate governance practices. See ‘Where is the next generation of Directors coming from” at http://www.womenonboards.org.au/pubs/a05_csecs.htm
2.1 While the primary objective of the Women on Boards program is to ensure that aspiring female directors be judged on their corporate governance skills and experience, not their gender, how do you regard the view that corporations should appoint women on their boards to redress the inequitable representation of women in their boards? If as your 2005 survey identified that women are not appointed because they lack the experience and skills, exposure, information and have to overcome the ‘boys club’ mentality, how can women be successful in getting advanced positions that they can highlight in their CVs? Is it not the case that the situation is so dire that realistically, representation should be based on equity at least to begin with, and then on merit? I am optimistic that the women who do apply can be mentored to develop the necessary skills if the organization’s executive is willing to be inclusive.
Women are doing much better gaining positions on government boards – with the figure being 35% of board seats on government boards are held by women; with some States looking to a 50% representation. Effectively there has been a target in place for many years with an infrastructure to support its achievement. Perhaps this is in part because Governments understand very well that 50% of voters are women.
Do you think that the barriers that women are experiencing in getting on to boards are the same in strength and number as they were prior to the Women On Boards program being established in 2001? What has been effective in turning things around?
Hopefully not. Women on Boards is a range of activities which include raising awareness, lobbying, improving networks and access to mentors, identifying board positions and having a solid research base to measure progress.
Some responses to the issue cover only the first and final activity above; awareness raising and research. WOB is very much about action not just talking. It will increasingly rely upon the power of the networks that the project has built. That is the power to influence.
In tapping the knowledge of the Women on Boards members in relation to their experience of accessing board networks and directorships for the 2005 survey, what insights did you gain that will lead to the development of further strategies to overcome problems experienced by women wanting to be on boards?
The clear and predominant reason why women join WOB is to get help with getting onto boards. This must be the driver for our future strategies – not to say these strategies are necessarily all short term. It is also important not to oversell the ease of the task and to ensure that aspirants understand the amount of effort needed by them also.
How does your website http://www.womenonboards.org.au empower women to access board positions?
The WOB website has a number of functions that facilitate access to board positions. The Boardroom facility comprises
- Find Boards - more than 1200 boards and committees from the not-for-profit, rural, sport, arts, community and state and federal government sectors and the top 400 ASX listed companies.
- View Board Positions - the list of board positions posted with Women on Boards.
- Register a Board Position - a moderated search facility for organisations seeking board members and is available to any registered member of Women on Boards to post a vacant position.
The WOB website also offers a range of other support features such as information sources, research findings, invitations to networking events and biogs of a large number of mentor directors who support WOB.
What lobbying do you undertake with relevant government and private bodies to change the poor representation of women on Australian boards?
WOB does quite a lot of lobbying but is resource constrained to some extent – it can be a long process.
WOB lobbies the chairmen of companies that are on the WOB target list. This list comprises about 77 publicly listed companies that do not currently have a woman director and came out of the 2004 WOB research funded by the Federal Office for Women.
WOB communicates with State Governments about facilitating access to Board positions, given that the ‘lists’ run by State Governments are not always fully utilized.
How did you personally come to be involved in Women on Boards? What do you find most challenging about your position?
The original idea for WOB was ‘invented’ by Ruth Medd and Catherine Ordway , a sports lawyer who was interested in improving the quality of corporate governance of sporting bodies. It grew from a single event in Sydney in 2001 to what we have today – an online community of currently 2500 aspirant women directors with associated networking activities and lobbying. Post the 2001 event a number of other organizations and women came together to form what is now the WOB management team.
The most challenging thing is to facilitate women onto paid boards – competition is fierce and opportunities relatively limited. It takes time and is about identifying an opportunity and effectively following it up.