Powerful help enlisted to get more women on government boards

Women considering their first government board position will have some extra help from today, with Finance Minister Penny Wong set to announce a new program aimed at developing the pipeline of talent available.

Wong's enlisted the help of a number of powerful corporate players to back her Boardlinks program, including Westpac's Gail Kelly, Telstra's Catherine Livingstone and serial board member David Gonski, who've all signed on to promote the initiative and encourage more women to apply for government board positions.

The program will include networking, mentoring and support for women in getting their first government board position, in the hope such experience will also see more women get onto corporate boards. It's part of the Federal government's target to have 40% of government board positions across its portfolios occupied by women by 2015.

It's a great start, according to some of the country's leading spokeswomen promoting women on boards, but they hope today's announcement can be further expanded.

Businesswoman Carol Schwartz, who'll join Gonski, Kelly and Livingstone in a small private sector group supporting the program, says the initiative shows the government's making itself accountable on the issue of board gender equality by making their targets transparent.

She believes the 2015 target will help funnel more women onto ASX-listed boards.

"I don't believe that sitting on a government board is any different to sitting on a NFP or a corporate board. The issues on governance are all identical. It's only the subject matter that changes."

However, she says the program should also consider a target for the number of female chairs on government boards. "Everyone celebrating the fact we're aiming for so many women on boards, for me it's about putting women in the chairman's role."

"I bring it up with every government minister I can, every state and federal. We need women in the chairman's position. To say women don't have the skills is rubbish."

Women on Boards co-founder Claire Braund says the target is an "inspired move" and is encouraged by the fact it's coming from the Department of Finance, and the Office for Women.

However, she believes the program could be extended to boards that receive government funding – such as sporting boards – and that targets should be applied to government boards specifically, rather than to the number of board positions within a specific portfolio. "There are still key departments struggling to get over 25%," she says.

And while she strongly supports networking activities and especially any programs that can open new government networks women who may not have previously been able to access, she's skeptical about any "sponsorship" and training initiatives provided. 

"We support director training for ALL directors," she says. "But with scholarships you suggest women need training and are somehow less qualified than men."

Both Braund and Schwartz commended Wong for her efforts in driving the initiative forward. The program is supported by Women on Boards, Company Directors and Chief Executive Women.

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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