Plenty of room at the top for these high-flyers

New ASX guidelines on diversity are helping women get a seat around the boardroom table, write Leonie Lamont and Ruth Williams.

New ASX guidelines on diversity are helping women get a seat around the boardroom table, write Leonie Lamont and Ruth Williams.

A record was quietly broken last month - several times over. On December 1, amid 2011's hectic round of annual meetings and shareholder votes, seven women were appointed to ASX 200 boards - bringing the number of female director appointments during the year to an all-time high of 60, up from 59 the previous year.

The next day, Helen Coonan joined the board of Crown - bringing the total to 61. Sharon Doyle joining Cabcharge took it to 62 later in the month - then there were another three before Christmas, bringing the total to 65. It finished a year in which women accounted for 40 per cent of new board appointments to ASX 50 companies - to now make up almost 19 per cent of all ASX 50 directors.

While still very much in the minority, women have a bigger presence on big company boards than ever before. In terms of boosting diversity on boards, it has been a year of "real progress", says Jillian Segal, an ASX and National Australia Bank director.

"I am seeing conversations in the boardroom very different from the conversations five years ago," she says, as the major companies also focus on developing a pipeline of senior women managers, from where the next generation of directors could come.

The boost in female directors has followed the unveiling of new ASX corporate governance guidelines on diversity, which kicked in this financial year. Under the guidelines, companies will need to set "measurable objectives" on gender diversity, and publish breakdowns on the proportion of women on staff, in senior management and on the board. If they don't comply, they will have to explain why not.

In the wake of a rush by ASX 200 companies to comply early, Segal - along with Elizabeth Broderick, the federal sex discrimination commissioner - credit the ASX guidelines with boosting the ranks of female directors.

But Segal also points to a two-year-old mentorship program at the Australian Institute of Company Directors, which matches long-serving directors with up-and-coming females.

Segal says that while the ASX diversity guidelines are driving the change, the catalyst for change was the belief of the 21 business and professional representative organisations comprising the ASX Corporate Governance Council that more women would be good for business.

This year, in her second year with the AICD scheme, Segal was matched with former KPMG partner Patria Mann, while corporate veteran Don Argus, the former BHP Billiton chairman, is mentoring Claire Higgins, a former BHP commercial trainee and director of several Victorian government boards.

"There's some very talented women out there, but unless you are able to find them women don't push themselves as far forward as their male counterparts do," Argus says. "It's finding those with the skills and the desire that want to get ahead."

Segal and Mann both went to the Sydney Anglican girls school Kambala, and have similar backgrounds. But their paths had not previously crossed. As Segal points out, Mann, already a director, is not seeking her first company board, and her mentorship deals more with career advice and strategy, and progression. The women say that as they don't come principally from an operational background, they commonly get pigeonholed. Mann an "accountant", Segal a "lawyer" - though Segal jokes she is generally tagged as an "ex-regulator" from her time as deputy chairman of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

Mann left KPMG and her speciality of forensic accounting after the birth of her third child. "At the end [being a partner] becomes very demanding - not that being a director isn't demanding, but you are slightly more in control," she says.

A director for nine years, Mann is on the boards of First State Superannuation Trustee Corporation (with $30 billion in funds under management), Perpetual Superannuation Limited and chairs the Doctors' Health Fund Limited.

She joined the listed company Ridley Corp three years ago, stepping into the vacancy left by Elizabeth Bryan, a Westpac director and the chairwoman of Caltex.

The deputy chairman Rick Lee, and the Ridley board, had believed in giving women an opportunity, she says. "I gather they did that with Elizabeth as well, and look at where she has ended up."

For Higgins, the closure of a business partly led to a new career as a director. After working for BHP for 20 years, then for the spun-off former BHP subsidiary, OneSteel, in 2008 she was given the job of winding up a OneSteel steel-making joint venture that had succumbed to competition from China. When that role ended in 2008, she decided not to go back into full-time work, but to pursue a career as a company director.

She'd already served as chairwoman of Barwon Health, which oversees Geelong Hospital. In 2007, she joined the board of Victoria's Country Fire Authority and the Victoria State Emergency Service Authority, of which she is now the chairwoman. Her goal is to be appointed to an ASX 200 board.

Higgins says that being mentored by Argus has helped her understand that "I do have something to offer at that level". "Don has helped me understand that the experiences that I have had over a number of years are valuable and also how to recognise that and then explain that better."

Argus, meanwhile, says the mentorship program has also been a learning experience on his part.

"I would have liked to have had more mentors, as a person coming up through the ranks," he says. "It's all part of the process of broadening your own skill base."

In 2008, the number of women on ASX 200 boards went backwards, from 129 to 125, or 8.3 per cent as a proportion of all ASX 200 directors. It is now a record 13.5 per cent. The number now stands at 140 - with those 140 women holding a collective 199 board positions.

"I sense a shifting in attitudes, and people understanding and accepting the business case for change," Broderick says. But she's wary that progress will plateau.

"The challenge is to ensure the change continues," she says.

Coonan, the new Crown director - who will also take up a board position with a merchant bank this year - told BusinessDay that board candidates needed clear objectives, and know what industry sectors they want to develop expertise in, as she believes the future will gravitate to specialists rather than generalists.

"It's a matter of finding the right matches for your aspirations, inclinations and capacity," she says.

"When I left Parliament I wanted to get a suite of portfolios that interested me."

A cynic may note that the AICD's big push on diversity came only after public calls for gender quotas for boards, with some prominent women - including Broderick - suggesting such a measure may be needed if no progress is made.

But Argus, for one, rejects suggestions the AICD program is an exercise in tokenism. "Not this program," he says. "Tokenism is when you go to quotas [which are] a nonsense. You really give a person the opportunity to develop themselves under the mentor program."

The threat of quotas still lingers, with the federal government saying they are still an option if corporate Australia doesn't change itself.

"We have to see if the momentum can continue, and give it a few more years," Segal says. "If we lose momentum, then it's time to say it was a good try but we have to introduce quotas - but quotas run the risk of backlash. Companies bringing about cultural change themselves is far preferable."

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