A pipeline of female talent is available for board positions, but may appear narrower than it actually is due to traditional ideas of what a "board ready" candidate actually looks like.
That was the opinion of some women directors at a roundtable lunch organised by Company Directors in conjunction with Women's Agenda and Leading Company this week, who noted that "zigzagging careers" provide excellent experience but not necessarily the kind corporate boards are looking for.
"The focus of where you get directors from has always been quite narrow. If you've been a former CEO, CFO, partner in an accounting or law firm, then they're sort of entries in," said Melbourne-based director Kathy Grigg, a former CFO, finance director and general manager. "But [when it comes to] the broadening of the skills base that you want around the board, it seems like those who seek directors to go on boards need to take a wider scope."
Without such a shift in thinking, women who leave the professions and large corporations in order to start their own businesses, as well as those who make lateral moves in order to avoid roadblocks within particular organisations, may continue to be overlooked.
And it's not just missing out on titles like "CEO", "CFO" and "partner" on the CV that could be hurting women who opt for a career that takes a non-linear path, but also the fact that such career choices could see women miss out on opportunities to find sponsors – something the roundtable of women directors agreed had been vital in helping them get ahead.
"The issue around sponsorship is often in opportunity," said non-executive director Sandra (Sam) Anderson. "You can only really be sponsored if somebody's actually seen you work, so that when one of their friends says, 'I'm on this board and I need a work committee' ... They can say 'hey, I've got one and she's great'."
Anderson said boards need to recognise the value in diversity is about diversity of thought, not merely about getting a better gender mix on boards. "We need to think outside the circular dimension about where women come from. There are a lot of talented women that come from outside the top 100 corporations in Australia," she said.
"The pipeline automatically opens up when people don't expect you to have exactly the same career as somebody else had. Different careers come into this idea of diversity of thought."
The comments followed last week's release of EOWA's Census of Women in Leadership which found just 9.2% of ASX 500 board positions are held by women and that what's been long considered the "pipeline" for such positions – senior executive roles in large corporations – is too narrow to expect any significant change in coming years.
Those at the roundtable had a variety of reasons for why, despite decades of research supporting the business case for diversity, we're still not seeing a significant change in the number of women on boards.
Fusion Retails Brands chairman Susan Oliver said plenty of workplaces still have structural barriers in place that make it difficult to support women who have children. She cited the example of a young woman she mentors who's in a "hairy chested environment" which has no formal feedback loops, nor a maternity leave policy. "She feels that she's lost in that world, she doesn't know what her next step is and she's unsure of herself because of that absence of infrastructure," Oliver said.
Non-executive director Marion MacLeod said women are being held back because they're having "different conversations" to those of their male counterparts. And that young women continue to make the same mistakes as those who came before them: "Not being prepared to take the jump when the role is offered because they're not sure they're meritorious, that they've got everything they need," she said. "They need to understand that the conversation isn't necessarily about whether women are ready for the role, the conversation is about politics. And men know that."
And workplace culture is still an issue according to Janice van Reyk, whose board roles include Citywide, Melbourne Water and Port of Melbourne. "It's also not just unconscious bias there's a lot of conscious bias that goes on too. Those are more significant barriers than family friendly policies. We've had those for decades and it's made no difference," she said.
Check back with Women's Agenda for more from the roundtable discussion next week.