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Editor's Agenda

Time to shine a spotlight on the ASX 500’s missing women

/ Nov 27, 2012 8:44AM / Print / ()

For years now we've been watching a percentage figure associated with the ASX 200 make tiny changes.

That figure's the percentage of women who hold ASX 200 board positions, a figure that's tracked by Company Directors in real time, and one that is currently at its highest point ever, 15.2%.

Putting an emphasis on this figure may just have helped its climb north, particularly over the past couple of years. It was just 8.4% in 2010.

Unfortunately, it's been no total measure for the dire lack of women across all ASX boards. And it's offered nothing regarding how the number of women in senior executive positions is increasing – if it's increasing at all.

Today's release of the Women in Leadership Census, covering the ASX 500 for the first time, doesn't tell the full story either, but it does offer a measure that's a little broader than what we've been following.

The results aren't pretty. The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency has found that just 9.2% of ASX 500 board positions are held by women.

The percentage of women on ASX 200 boards is progressing at a glacial pace, but at least it's moving. Putting these organisations under the spotlight has seen measures such as the ASX guidelines on diversity introduced, as well as consistent pressure applied by advocacy groups. Some companies, like the survey's sponsor ANZ, have moved to publicly announce targets, tie gender diversity to group-based KPIs and track the results in an open and transparent way.

When the problem's so bad and has been bad for so long, it helps to have a clear-cut percentage figure that can tell the story and be used to promote the taking of what some may consider drastic measures in order to address the problem.

While we can hope the spotlight that's seen the ASX 200 make at least some progress will do the same thing for the next segment of corporate Australia, the ASX 500. the reality is that further short-term change to the stats regarding the number of women on boards is inherently challenged when you consider another sobering statistic: just 9.2% of senior executives across these companies are female.

And here's another: just 13 of the 500 CEOs are female.

And another: about 60% of ASX 500 companies do not have a single female senior executive.

How is it that after decades of graduating in at least equal numbers to men, women are not even reaching senior executive positions, let alone taking a seat on some of the country's most powerful boards? And more importantly, what are we going to do about it?

An inability to access real flexible work arrangements has something to do with why women drop out of particular professions at certain stages, as does the prohibitive cost and not always accessible nature of childcare. It's around flexibility that organisations can play their part; policymakers can work on the childcare piece.

It starts with getting leaders interested. Clearly, the business case alone for gender diversity hasn't been a great enough incentive, but tying gender-based targets to remuneration could be. It's interesting that the companies making the most progress in this area tend to be the ones that have a CEO who's deeply involved in championing the cause.

Companies, and the leaders who run them, need to own this problem because change comes from within. There is no mandate to put women on boards and in senior executive ranks, but there is a business opportunity to actually utilise the other half of the population.

There's also the opportunity for these organisations to make their own decisions regarding gender diversity rather than have those decisions imposed on them – which could happen if we don't see much change of the next couple of years.

As EOWA director Helen Conway outlined to Women's Agenda last week following the passage of the Workplace Gender Equality Act through the Senate, companies have a number of years to work at how they're going to measure gender diversity progress. They merely need to make progress against their reported figures.

It's not a tough ask: Conway decrees it more in keeping with the carrot than the stick. It's one that gives organisations employing more than 100 people a decent amount of time to sort themselves out. Indeed, it may be the final opportunity to address the problem before we do see the big stick approach: the one I'd think all organisations would be hoping to avoid taking a beating from: quotas.

Women are 51% of the population. We won't become 50% of the board or senior executive population overnight, but we should be seeing change – some kind of movement – towards that figure.

We now have the baseline data to follow the progress of a larger segment of the ASX. While it's by no means the full picture, it's a place where we can start to shine a spotlight, and use to apply pressure on companies and policymakers to initiate measures for change. The only way can be up for here.

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