AFTER becoming the first Australian to sign Bill Gates' "giving pledge" to donate half his wealth to charity, Andrew Forrest hit another milestone this week when Fortescue Metals appointed the first woman to its board since it listed in 2005.
Until the appointment, Fortescue was the only company in the ASX top 50 that had no female representation on its board.
It comes as companies have been trying to increase the number of women on boards following the introduction of ASX Corporate Governance Council diversity requirements on January 1, 2011, which requires listed companies to post in their annual reports the proportion of women on their boards, in senior management and throughout the organisation.
Mr Forrest said on Friday the board did not feel under pressure to appoint a woman to the board.
"We were specific in our instructions to a global search firm that we didn't want to be introduced to household names but wanted them to find some up-and-comers showing enormous talent and entrepreneurial flair," he said.
The board finally decided to appoint Elizabeth Gaines, who has a background in accounting. Mr Forrest said before her appointment she was invited to attend a board meeting as an observer. "I can say that we had a short list of some other very impressive names but Elizabeth attended the board meeting, and when she spoke the board listened to her intently because of her experience," he said.
Fortescue also appointed the highly regarded former managing director of Worley Parsons, Peter Meurs, as an executive director. Meurs is at present a director of development at Fortescue. The two appointments have been made to beef up the board as the company ramps up iron ore production to 155 million tonnes a year at its Solomon Mines operation.
Mr Forrest was quick to say that Ms Gaines's appointment was based on merit. "I don't believe appointments should be tokenistic. We have to be careful about doing that," he said. "I would like to have more women on boards, but it shouldn't be based on gender but merit."
It comes as the debate over quotas continues. Earlier this month a Sydney investment banker and company director, Peter Hunt, was reported as calling for the Corporations Act to introduce a board quota of 25 per cent of women.
"This is the elephant in the room - we are seeing incremental change when we need a paradigm shift," Mr Hunt reportedly said.
Since the ASX introduced diversity requirements the number of women on the ASX200 boards has risen from 8.2 per cent to more than 15.4 per cent.
However, an estimated 51 companies in the ASX 200 - a quarter of Australia's top 200 listed companies - still have no women on the boards.