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Business > Women on boards
Women make up some 55 per cent of university graduates and
nearly 50 per cent of Australia's workforce. Yet they're woefully
under-represented when it comes to board roles and senior
positions. What's the solution?
Story Tony Malkovic
Peter Ritchie copped a lot of fak more
than two decades ago when he publicly
espoused introducing quotas for appointing
women to boards in Australia – but the
outrage didn’t come from where he expected.
“I got hit with criticism from all sides and
the most vehement opposition came from
women,” says the former chief executive of
McDonald’s in Australia.
“They didn’t want people to say to them
‘You’re only on the board because of
the numbers’. They wanted to earn their
positions in their own right. And the reality is
that some of them are doing that, but I think
nowhere near the numbers back then they
thought they’d be able to achieve.
“So what we have in Australia 25 years
later, still, is a shortage of women on boards.
I say if we’d have introduced quotas back
then that would not be the case. I think we’d
have a lot more women in leadership roles if
we’d have forced it back then.”
Ritchie had seen how anti-discrimination
quotas had worked in the US when he was
on the US board of McDonald’s. He says
those quotas aimed to get more Afro-
Americans on company boards but they also
worked to beneft women.
“If we want it to happen quickly, quotas are
the way to go,” he says. “And there shouldn’t
be a long lead in, we should give companies
12 months to straighten it out.”
HESITATION ON QUOTAS
Anne McDonald FCA thinks the opposite.
“I’m not particularly in favour of quotas,
I would prefer to see us get there through
the current means with a lot of focus on the
issue and the if-not-why-not approach (see
side story),” she says. “However, I fear that’s
not going to happen quickly enough.”
McDonald is a full-time, non-executive
director on the boards of several listed
and unlisted companies including the GPT
Group, Spark Infrastructure Group, Specialty
Fashion Group and Westpac’s Life and
General Insurance businesses.
“I’d like to give the current approach
another one or two years,” she says. “And
if things are not working, then I think we
will probably have to move to quotas. My
hesitation with quotas is that anything that’s
imposed tends to be less acceptable – but
that might be the price we have to pay in
the short term to achieve the longer term
Before her board career, McDonald was
a partner at Ernst & Young for some 15
years. Her board experience goes back
to 1998. Her tip for women interested in
pursuing a board career is to have a realistic
assessment of their skills – and go for it.
“The comment I always make to other
females is to step out of your comfort zone
and don’t wait to be tapped on the shoulder
for the next opportunity because the men
don’t do that,” she explains.
McDonald says women should be able to
clearly articulate the skills and strengths they
can bring to an executive or board role. And
they needn’t be shy about coming forward.
“Make sure people know you want to
go to the next step and want the same
opportunities,” she says. “I think men
are better at communicating their career
aspirations than women are at times. That’s
not a criticism, it’s just a style issue. I think
ultimately they have to recognise that and
“Make sure you can say ‘Here are the
skills I bring and this is the value I think I
can add’. It would probably feel quite bold
to some women, but that’s just the way the
game is played.”
Fiona Harris FCA says Chartered
Accountants have an advantage when it
comes to pursuing a board career but, at the
same time, they can be hobbled.
“Chartered Accountants are lucky because
there’s usually one slot on every board that’s
allocated to the person who needs to chair the
audit committee, or be the fnance person or
treasurer on a smaller board or NFP,” she says.
Harris is the past president of the
Australian Institute of Company Directors
in Western Australia and a member of its
national board. She is a full-time, non-
executive director and also the non-executive
chairman of Barrington Consulting Group.
Previously, she was a partner with KPMG,
working in Sydney, San Francisco and Perth.
She says there can be inbuilt impediments
when it comes to choosing between your
frm or a future as a director.
“Investment bankers, for instance, seem
to be able to negotiate a staged reduction
in work and can transition to a board
career,” she says. “But for many Chartered
Accountants, you’re either on the jetty or on
the boat. And that can be quite challenging
if you want to embark on a board career
because sometimes board positions can
take months or even years to eventuate.
“It’s certainly one of the limiting factors.
If you have a look around, there are large
pools of talented women in senior ranks in
legal frms and accounting frms and the like
– many of whom are prevented from taking
on a board position except perhaps for a
She points out there’s a simple reason
why boards sometimes have diffculty
identifying senior business women as
potential board candidates. Many of them
aren’t around any more.
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