In July, 2021, with the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) and the University of Queensland (UQ), AGEC investigated how Australia had reached over 34% women on its ASX200 boards as well as implications for the future.  In this blog, I explain what we found and what we can learn from the study.

Over 34% women on ASX200 boards – a remarkable achievement?

The achievement is remarkable in several ways. Firstly, we are one of only three countries in the world to have reached 30%+ women on top listed company boards without resort to legislated quotas; the others being the United Kingdom and Canada. Secondly, we have moved from only 8.3% women on ASX200 boards in 2009 to 34.4% in 2021, a remarkable rise in only 12 years and finally, this has been done against the backdrop of Australia’s persistently woeful gender equality statistics in other areas. For example, we rank 70th in the world for the economic participation and opportunity for women and 54th in the world for the political empowerment of women (World Economic Forum, 2021) and have a persistent gender pay gap of 20%+ (WGEA, 2021) which is again increasing rather than deceasing.

What can we learn from this achievement?

There are many things we can learn from understanding this achievement, much of which can be applied to the greater problem of the relative lack of women in leadership roles in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors.

Ultimately, Australia’s success is the story of a relatively small group of like-minded and passionate men and women advocates in positions of influence in large ASX listed firms, the media, Government agencies and peak representative bodies informally joining forces to argue for change and not being satisfied with ‘no’ as an answer. It is about changing systems, structures, perceptions and even rules along the way.

It was also just as much about supporting and endorsing the work of those across the field of gender equality, transmitting the evidence around the importance of inclusion and its causal impact of greater organisational outcomes, including not just profitability, but employee well-being. It was about not being afraid to name and shame those firms which refused to reflect the shift in both community and business attitudes towards women, as well as institutions making it clear that they would withdraw financial support for these firms if they persisted in their lack of action… and actually having the courage to do so on occasion!

How does Australia compare to the rest of the world?

There are a few unique features to Australia’s story compared to that of the UK, for example. Perhaps the most important was the recognition by Australia’s peak governance body, the AICD, of the need to mentor and, more importantly, sponsor women into board roles. The strength and depth of AICD’s membership, its reputation and representation across the Australian business community also played a key part in shifting attitudes on this issue. This recognition of the need to shift attitudes coupled with the involvement of ASX50 chairs in mentoring programs has led to many of today’s women chairs of ASX200 firms being graduates of AICD’s programs.

Just as unique to Australia and as important in recent years to the role played by the AICD, is that of the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors, who represent our industry superannuation funds. Australia’s unique position on superannuation has led to a pool of several trillions of dollars in retirement savings, some of which allow industry funds to control over 10% of the share registers of the ASX200 firms. Their decision to hold firms to account and vote against the boards of those firms who were not moving on issues of workplace gender equality are a manifest example of the ‘stick’ in the ‘carrot and stick’ equation.

Lessons of the last decade

To what degree can the  lessons of the past 12 years in driving board gender equality be applied to workplace gender equality? This is not a simple question. For a start, the total number of board seats available in the ASX200 sits at around 1,365 (ACSI, 2021), whereas the total number of women in the Australian workforce exceeds 7 million; so a much larger problem.

Further, rather than just 200 firms in the study, women work in over 2.3 million businesses across the country. Yet despite the huge differences in numbers, it is the same factors which need to be addressed. These include:

  • gender role stereotypes that are perpetuated in our schools, homes and the media and which lead women into lower paid industries and away from operational roles that are likely to see them progress into leadership roles (and men undertaking less childcare and domestic work).
  • the need for universal free childcare and equal/flexible parental leave that helps to alleviate the present unequal distribution of domestic labour and childcare.
  • structural inequalities in wage setting, educational opportunity, sport and political systems which privilege men into safer seats and eventual cabinet roles, to name just a few.

Dr Terry Fitzsimmons
Managing Director & CEO AGEC
Senior Lecturer, University of Queensland Business School