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Georgina reports on the legal profession, management, marketing, diversity, retail and emerging businesses. Before joining BRW, she worked as a lawyer in a commercial firm.

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Women divided on the question of quotas

Published 09 October 2012 06:02, Updated 10 October 2012 04:52

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Women divided on the question of quotas

Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency director Helen Conway notes the actual pool of women on boards has remained static for the past decade.

In preparing last week’s cover story, How to be the CEO: a woman’s guide, BRW  had the opportunity to canvass a variety of topics regarding corporate leadership with nine women who know the subject well. The issue of mandatory quotas for women on boards inevitably surfaced. The consensus was that it would be a shame to reach the point where that is necessary but a greater shame for progress in the proportion of females on boards to be delayed too much longer. According to the Australian Institute of Company Directors, women hold 14.4 per cent of board positions on the top 200 ASX-listed companies. But Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency director Helen Conway says that figure doesn’t convey the whole story.

“If you drill down on that figure there are a number of women who hold multiple positions,” Conway says. “One woman holds five positions, some hold four and there are a few who hold three.” So the actual pool of women on boards is smaller than the percentage suggests and has remained static for the past decade.

“We need to achieve sustainable change in attitudes and behaviour, which we don’t have at the moment,” Conway says. “If sustainable change had underpinned the appointment of women like Margaret Jackson and Helen Lynch to boards for the first time in the ’80s and ’90s then we would have seen considerable incremental change since then, but we haven’t.”

Without structural change, Conway is adamant we won’t achieve headway, but for now she wants that to happen organically. “My preference is voluntarily setting targets,” she says. “The problem with regulation is it can become a compliance issue rather than a change in substance, which this issue requires. My view is if we can’t get a reasonable level of change this way we’ll revisit our take on quotas.”

Qantas Super chairwoman Anne Ward has completely changed her take on quotas over the years.

“I used to be very much against them,” Ward says. “Perhaps I was more idealistic when I was younger about meritocracy and believing talent would make its way to the top. It is undeniable that in countries where quotas have been introduced they get there in less time. It’s not fashionable but it is effective – if a quota is set in a senior executive environment those targets are met.”

As for the argument that quotas will simply serve to promote token appointments, Ward is not convinced that would be an altogether bad development. I believe if we get to a place where there are as many incompetent women on boards and in senior roles as incompetent men then we will know we are approaching true gender equality!” she says.

Ideally, Microsoft Australia’s managing director Pip Marlow would like businesses to stand up and drive this imperative themselves. Realistically, she recognises that legislating for change might be a more effective route. “I think it is a shame to have to legislate quotas because it would be a failure on the part of businesses,” Marlow says. “Having said that, though, we don’t look back and say legislating for equal pay or for women to vote were bad decisions.”

Where do you stand on the issue of quotas?

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