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Boards need change agents, not just more women: Cox

A new government initiative to get more women on boards is addressing “the wrong end of the problem” says feminist Eva Cox…

Boardrooms are homogenous places that often host group think says feminist Eva Cox. Celine Nadeau

A new government initiative to get more women on boards is addressing “the wrong end of the problem” says feminist Eva Cox, who argues the bigger issue with boards is a homogeneity that results in group think. Ms Cox said adding women was hard because the system required that they mostly think and act like men.

Finance Minister Penny Wong and Minister for the Status of Women Julie Collins yesterday launched BoardLinks, a program that will help women get appointed to government boards. The program has also gained the support of senior executives from Westpac, the ASX, Coca-Cola Amatil and Telstra.

The government has committed to a 40% target for women on government boards by 2015, and is already close to achieving this. This contrasts with the ASX top 200 companies where women make up just 14.6% of board positions.

Ms Cox said similar initiatives, including a government database of women, had come and gone before, resulting in very little change.

She said the main problem was boards continuing to look for people that fit in, rather than those seeking to change the culture.

“As long as you’re keen on getting people who walk like you, talk like you, and don’t deeply offend you, then you will continue to appoint people that fit in.

“If you continue to appoint people that fit in, yes there will be more women in top positions, but nothing will really change.”

However Hannah Piterman, board consultant and adjunct associate professor at Monash University, said BoardLinks was evidence the government was serious about getting women on boards.

Professor Piterman agreed that the “male, pale and anglo” face of boards had to change, but added change must be led by corporations, with businesses, government and the university sector becoming increasingly corporatised.

“Corporates have a wide reaching influence footprint. ASX leaders are opinion makers. They create an agenda that others follow,” she said.

The government plans to establish a mentoring program to assist women in achieving their professional goals and their first board appointment, as well as furthering their directorship careers.

Professor Piterman said women need advocacy more than they need mentoring.

“Women have been developing themselves for a long time and been excluded from positions of leadership on criteria which has nothing to do with their capabilities,” she said.

Ms Cox said mentoring programs are usually about trying to “fit a square peg in a round hole”.

She added that the mess made by boards in so many industries was proof that decision making was “often wrong” and innovation ability missing on many boards.

“The question to be pushed back to government is: How are you going to change the culture on boards?”

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15 Comments sorted by

  1. Craig Minns

    Self-employed

    I'm fascinated to find myself agreeing more and more frequently with Eva Cox, albeit in this case in a fairly limited way. Either Ms Cox or I or both must be experiencing something of a shift in our views that might eventually (horrors!) lead to a genuine understanding.

    The issue for boards is finding the people who will add the most expertise in aspects of corporate governance that the board lacks. This adds value and hence enhances the board's capacity. A less important, but still serious consideration is the ability of the appointee to work constructively within the constraints of the existing board structure. If the person with the most expertise happens to have some personal characteristic that makes them intolerable in daily dealings then it may mean they should be passed over.

    Change is not axiomatically good. It has costs and those costs must be justified by the benefits it generates. If it doesn't stack up, then the status quo should prevail.

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  2. jim morris

    logged in via email @yahoo.com

    The feminist labor government is fixated on setting quotas for boards while at the same time they are reducing the meagre incomes of single parents. Because they have created the illusion that society is polarised into male/female issues instead of realising the essential stratification based on wealth and privilege there is no resistance. Feminists are simply greedy for power and greedy for money. Ever read Animal Farm Eva? You've just replaced the boars with sows.

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  3. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    “Ms Cox said adding women was hard because the system required that they mostly think and act like men.”

    Sounds like sex discrimination of men.

    “to eliminate, so far as is possible, discrimination against persons on the ground of sex, marital status, pregnancy or potential pregnancy or breastfeeding in the areas of work, accommodation, education, the provision of goods, facilities and services, the disposal of land, the activities of clubs and the administration of Commonwealth laws and programs”

    http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Details/C2012C00313

    Oh course its not discrimination of men on the ground of their sex, cries out the feminist voice, its simply that men are evil.

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  4. Andrea Shoebridge

    logged in via Facebook

    Of course women's appointment to boards and committees is contingent on their support for the status quo. Like everything else, until a critical mass of change agents can penetrate an establishment structure, it can be a lonely place to be the only one asking questions that bring a smirk around the table. It used to be thought that more women in management positions would change workplace culture but, by and large, that didn't happen. Eva Cox is quite right, it is the culture that needs changing.

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Andrea Shoebridge

      "their support for the status quo"

      So what is this mysterious "status quo", and how will women be automatically different, just because they are women?

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  5. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Your comment, ' Professor Piterman agreed that the “male, pale and anglo” face of boards had to change,..' is a disgusting, offensive and racist statement.

    Are you going to make the same comment to the burgeoning publicly owned companies in India or China?
    Are you going to tell them that their boards are too, 'male, dark and non-anglo'?

    Merit and merit alone should be the criteria for appointment to a company board, not the racism you propose.

    Gerard Dean

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      There could be a slight error, because the article didn't recommend a minimum of 40% representation of men on boards. I’m sure that slight error will be fixed, as it would only be complete hypocrisy and total sex discrimination wanting a minimum of 40% representation of women on boards, but not a minimum of 40% representation of men on boards.

      There is a question of how to define someone as being dark enough or non-anglo to pass some type of test, and be accepted on a board.

      For example: Out of this group of 10, only 2 are male, but it would be difficult to tell if they are dark enough or non-angle enough to be on a board.

      http://monash.edu/equity-diversity/contact-us.html

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    2. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Oh dear, you are right.

      How are they going to work out the correct ethnic, racial and gender mix for a Chinese multinational company?
      What about an Indian company, they would have to include religious groups as well.

      Actually, there was an organisation that did study race and ethnicity last century. Now who were they?

      The authors of this article should be ashamed of themselves claiming that boards should consider the paleness and skin colour of a potential director.

      It makes me sick.

      Gerard Dean

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    3. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      I can’t wait for all the white, anglo feminists in our universities to voluntarily have themselves replaced by black, non-anglo women.

      In fact, I have already heard rumours that mass numbers of feminists at the Sydney University of Technology, and at Monash University, are now leaving their jobs in huge droves, so they can be replaced by a better type of woman.

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    4. Craig Minns

      Self-employed

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      I think you're onto something here Dale. I heard that all staff were to be replaced as soon as possible with staff of different ethinicity and gender and that qualifications are being waived.

      Change and diversity are good...

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    5. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Craig Minns

      Well I congratulate all the white, anglo feminists who have voluntarily purged themselves out of the university system.

      They can take their “evil white male” rhetoric with them.

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    6. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Gerard, 'they' are not claiming that anyone *should* consider the maleness, paleness or ethnicity of directors: the good professor is merely stating an empirical fact in less than beige language. Eva Cox is specifically saying that it is about having different perspectives on the board rather than self-replicating homosociability. What other jurisdictions do with their boards is their business and no-one has suggested otherwise.

      And the notion that the status quo should prevail in the absence of benefits exceeding costs (Craig Minns) ignores the fact that both benefits and costs are assessed from a perspective and that a change in perspective, even from short to mid-term, can change the balance: there is, in fact, an argument for continuous change and adaptation unless there are significant and ongoing benefits from persisting with the status quo.

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    7. Craig Minns

      Self-employed

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Dennis, I disagree with your assertion that change for its own sake is always good.

      Certainly boards much possess the capacity to respond to changes in business conditions, which may include changes in social conditions to the extent that they impact the particular business, but that does not imply that they should be changing willy-nilly, as you suggest.

      Disruption to any organisation can be among the worst things that can happen to the organisation. Any change that is to be disruptive must…

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  6. John Coochey

    Mr

    So why do not women in for example in the legal profession set up their own firms make them successful and appoint themselves and their friends to the Board? And of course stay in business. Eva could lead the way.

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  7. jim morris

    logged in via email @yahoo.com

    Just returned from the library where the staff are 100% female and then went to the Asialink website to discover that 90% of the board are female. Bob Brown was bragging recently on Q&A that the Greens are 80% female. Is there a blaring inconsistency here?

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