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Nassim covers the accounting and tax rounds for BRW, as well as general business news. She previously worked for The Age newspaper covering general news, state politics and economics.

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I have an ‘unconscious bias’ in promoting women: Billabong CEO Launa Inman

Published 07 March 2013 11:44, Updated 10 April 2013 07:40

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I have an ‘unconscious bias’ in promoting women: Billabong CEO Launa Inman

Launa Inman says the issue of mandatory quotas for boards needs to be revisited if there are not changes in the next two to three years. Photo: Glenn Hunt

Launa Inman, the chief executive of troubled surfwear brand Billabong, says she may have an “unconscious bias” in promoting women to senior roles.

One of the few female chief executives of a major listed Australian company, Inman says getting more women to boards starts with appointing them into senior management positions.

Inman was appointed Billabong’s chief executive effective in May last year.

She made the comments at an Australian Institute of Company Directors luncheon debating the challenges for boards in 2013.

Inman was Target’s managing director between 2005 and 2011. She has also held leadership roles at Officeworks, Big W and with large South African-based retail companies.

Inman says that when she took on the role at Target, she was the only woman in the leadership team. By the time she left, 50 per cent of the team were women, she says. Without even being aware of it, there was probably an “unconscious bias” in her decisions to appoint women in senior roles.

“I do believe [the same thing] happens with men,” she says. “It’s not conscious but it does happen. In many organisations at least 50 per cent of your middle management are women and yet suddenly they all become dumb as they became senior? I find that hard to believe.”

Rather than immediately impose quotas, Inman suggests business leaders make a conscious effort to promote more women to senior management roles. “More than 50 per cent of all graduates are women. So it does seem very strange they are not represented at the senior levels,” she says.

“It’s about identifying them, mentoring them so they can get into that .. senior executive role, which in turn gives them an opportunity to go on the board.

“If in two to three years’ time we don’t start to see changes, we will have to revisit it [mandatory quotas].”

In many organisations at least 50 per cent of your middle management are women and yet suddenly they all become dumb as they became senior? I find that hard to believe.

Inman says the argument that women can’t juggle their children and a senior business role is also a fallacy. “Many in the middle levels have already had their children and are doing exactly that – juggling it,” she says.

Inman would not be drawn into the future of Billabong, which has been hit by the high Australian dollar and is currently the subject of a potential takeover. North Carolina-based apparel and lifestyle company VF Corporation is part of an American consortium, which includes US private equity firm Altamont Capital Partners, that has matched a takeover bid lodged in December by another group led by Billabong board member Paul Naude.

“Everyone expects me to talk about the challenges that boards face when there’s attempted takeovers but I’m not going to talk about that due to signed confidentiality [agreements],” Inman says.

But she did say that boards are facing a competing challenge of adhering to greater regulation. “You have to ensure that’s there’s due governance and that regulations are adhered to, but there’s also a need to help grow shareholder value,” she says. “At times boards perhaps forget that.”

Also speaking at the luncheon was former Amcor chief Peter Day who praised the contribution of women in business deals he had worked on.

Day is currently a non-executive director of companies including Ansell and Centro. He says the role that women, such as Susan Oliver at Centro, have made to boards is unique. “It’s just a different lens,” he says. “Whether it’s from education, whether it’s in the DNA, or whether it’s the size of the brain [no-one knows].

“I think there are very deep biological differences that lead to different ways of looking at things; you’ve got to get those differences around the board table.”

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