Australian firms trail world for women in top roles

Two-thirds of Australia’s ASX500 firms have no female executives, a census released by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace agency has found. http://www.flickr.com/photos/dangoorevitch/

Australian companies have the lowest percentage of women in top executive roles compared to other countries with equivalent corporate structures, a new report has found.

The 2012 Australian Census of Women in Leadership, conducted by the UTS Centre for Corporate Governance and released today by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, found that little had changed for women in top listed companies in the last decade.

Women hold 12.3% of ASX 200 directorships, up from 8.4% in 2010. This year’s census also examined ASX 500 firms for the first time, finding women hold 9.2% of those directorships.

There were seven female CEOs in the ASX 200 (up from six in 2010) and 12 in the ASX 500.

Two thirds of ASX 500 companies have no female executives, a fact described by the agency’s director, Helen Conway, as “a very nasty statistic”.

“We don’t have the pipeline that’s getting women to be directors and chairs of boards,” she said.

“In truth, until you have men and women able to access the full suite of flexible work arrangements and have flexible careers without disadvantage to advancement, you are not going to get gender equality.”

The agency called for firms to set voluntary targets for propelling women into top executive management and leadership roles.

“But frankly, if the targets don’t work and if employers don’t embrace this, the Damocles sword of quotas remains and that may well be the outcome in the future,” Ms Conway said.

In 2010, the ASX formally recommended that all listed companies establish a diversity policy, measure the number of women in leadership positions and throughout the company and set measurable objectives for achieving gender diversity.

However, the report found that Australia trailed behind New Zealand, the United States, Canada and South Africa when it comes to women in executive positions.

Professor Thomas Clarke, Director of the Centre for Corporate Governance at UTS, said Norway had introduced rules to ensure at least 40% of company directors were women.

“We have neglected very seriously half of the national talent in Australia,” said Professor Clarke.

Jennifer Whelan, Research Fellow at the Melbourne Business School and co-author of a separate report called Targets and Quotas for Women in Leadership: A Global Review of Policy, Practice and Psychological Research, said today’s census showed some progress for women on boards.

“But as the figures show, this has not yet trickled down to numbers of women in key positions outside of boards,” she said.

Norway’s quota legislation applied only to boards of listed companies and not women on executive committees, at CEO level, or as chairs of boards.

“The hoped-for trickle down is still not in evidence in Norway and our data here shows a similar story,” said Dr Whelan, who was not involved in the census released today.

“This suggests that gender equality initiatives need to address pipeline and talent development issues, remuneration and performance policies and procedures that ensure accountability, conscious and unconscious bias at an individual level, along with mainstreaming work-life balance, to ensure enough women are reaching senior enough roles to be board material in the first place,” she said.

“Quotas would certainly provide a much needed regulatory stick to motivate more effort, but they do not solve the problem.”

Private firms have an even worse track record than publicly listed firms when it comes to women in executive roles, said Dr Whelan.

“Many organisations do not consider gender diversity and inclusion to be a crucial bottom line endeavour, and it is de-prioritised accordingly, despite the lip-service – hence the lack of dramatic progress.”