First impressions are not always what they seem.
To an outsider, Australia appears to be a modern progressive nation with a female Prime Minister, Governor-General, and Lord Mayor of its biggest city.
But a snapshot of the private sector sharpens the focus: We are not destroying the joint; the joint is destroying us.
Image by Unknown Artist – The Australian War Memorial (ARTV01060), via Historic Houses Trust.
For the first time, the Australian Census of Women in Leadership, conducted by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, has looked beyond the ASX 200 companies to those in the top 500.
The results are nothing short of appalling.
Two thirds of ASX 500 companies have no female executives.
I don’t often resort to capitalisation but I feel the need to write that again:
NO FEMALE EXECUTIVES.
Only 12 have a woman as CEO.
Australia has the lowest percentage of female executives compared with countries of a similar governance structure.
“The progress has been just hopeless,” according to EOWA Director, Helen Conway (pictured below right, image via BRW). “I don’t think people have taken this seriously.”
Ms. Conway says companies have shown “little discipline” in achieving voluntary targets.“The Sword of Damocles is hanging on the issue of quotas,” she says. “If we’re not seeing reasonable change by 2015/16… it would be hard to hold back the tide.”
I have been a vocal supporter of mandatory quotas for women both on boards and within senior management.
Still, the seven countries which have adopted this approach show varying levels of success. Women occupy 40 percent of board positions in Norway, but just 25 percent of management posts.
We need to unblock the pipeline for women, from the bottom up.
“We’ve firstly got a problem with female workplace participation,” Ms. Conway says.
Her answer is a root and branch review of childcare, including an inquiry by the productivity commission.
“Until you have men and women able to access flexible work arrangements without disadvantage to advancement, you are not going to get workplace equality.”
In Canada, a boost in childcare spending saw an exponential increase in the female participation rate.
EOWA estimates closing the gender employment gap in Australia would lift our GDP by 11 percent. Research shows businesses with policies on gender equality have a stronger bottom line, higher stock prices, and pay larger dividends during economic downturns.
“The evidence is pretty clear that promoting gender equality is good business strategy,” says co-chair of Women Corporate Directors in New York, Alison Winter.
“This is not just for equity. This is for business performance. We are neglecting half the potential management talent in Australian companies,” according to Professor Thomas Clarke from the Centre for Corporate Governance at the University of Technology, Sydney.
The ANZ bank has been setting public targets since 2006, with 24 percent of executive roles and 38 percent of management positions held by women.
“Don’t trust us, track us,” is the mantra of the bank’s CEO, Mike Smith.
The federal government is on track to meet its target of 40 percent female board positions by 2015. The landmark Workplace Gender Equality Act will add impetus by forcing businesses to report on gender equity.
And there are calls for executive pay to be docked if targets are not met.
Diligence by the AICD has seen a significant increase in the number of women on boards: 61.5 percent of ASX 200 companies have at least one female director.
But once widened to the top 500 companies, the picture remains bleak: women hold only 9.2 percent of such positions. It appears companies are trying to tick the box at board level, while neglecting senior management.
In the words of Mike Smith, “…more radical approaches are now required”.
After all, this is not just a women’s issue. It’s an economic issue; it’s a workplace issue; and it’s a societal issue.
If we’re really going to destroy the joint, we’ll need a much bigger stick.
MORE ARTICLES BY TRACEY SPICER
*Tracey Spicer is a respected journalist who has worked for many years in radio, print and television.
Channel Nine and 10 news presenter and reporter; 2UE and Vega broadcaster; News Ltd. columnist; Sky News anchor …it’s been a dream career for the Brisbane schoolgirl with a passion for news and current affairs.
Tracey is a passionate advocate for issues as diverse as voluntary euthanasia, childhood vaccinations, breastfeeding, better regulation of foreign investment in Australia’s farmland, and curtailed opening hours for pubs and clubs. She is an Ambassador for World Vision, ActionAid, WWF, the Royal Hospital for Women’s Newborn Care Centre and the Penguin Foundation, Patron of Cancer Council NSW and The National Premmie Foundation, and the face of the Garvan Institute’s research into pancreatic cancer, which killed her beloved mother Marcia 11 years ago. But Tracey’s favourite job, with her husband, is bringing up two beautiful children – six-year-old Taj and five-year-old Grace. Visit Tracey’s website at www.spicercommunications.biz or follow her on Twitter @spicertracey.