I have no doubt the notion of setting quotas or targets for women in board and senior management roles is still one the most vexed and emotionally charged aspects of reaching gender equality in this country.
And we need to name it, and get over it.
I still meet a troubling number of women who say they don’t want their career to be defined by taking quota roles; that the only way they’ll feel credible is to get a position on merit through a blended recruitment process which includes men.
Equally, I sense that large numbers of men also feel slighted, believing it to be either needless or unfair. Perhaps more worrying, some board chairs still see it as a box to tick, and once they’re close to the 30 per cent target set by the Australian Institute of Company Directors they feel their job is done.
We’ve spent many years tip-toeing around this polarising issue, but we don’t have the time to be gentle about it anymore. We need to change this mentality, because hoping, wishing and praying for gender equality doesn’t work.
In fact, the latest AICD gender diversity progress report shows the growth rate in the appointment of female directors is slowing. While the proportion of women on S&P/ASX200 boards has risen since 2009 when it was 8.3 per cent, at the end of August there were 25.4 per cent female directors, only marginally above the 25.3 per cent at the end of 2016. Still, 11 boards had no women and 64 only one.
We're long past the time that the 30 per cent target is just an aspiration.
We have major investors and superannuation funds analysing the composition of boards and management teams and calling to account those companies with no or little diversity. This is because evidence shows that having women and other forms of diversity managed in an inclusive framework and culture creates value, and its absence can speak to other problems inherent in a business.
I’ve seen this at play. Where there is greater diversity around the table, the radar is sharper on contemporary issues in the community and society which may affect the business, because there are more people seeing things through their own experiences rather than being bound by the limitations of a homogenous group.
To get to equality, organisations must be purposeful and deliberate.
To every board I was appointed as the first woman – Virgin, Transurban, the Australian Football League Commission – I filled a “quota”. It may not have been called that at the time – and of course I needed to have the requisite skills and experience – but it’s undeniable that those boards appointed me because they had to appoint their first woman.
And that’s something I’ve come to embrace.
It was by no means easy. In the days after being appointed to the AFL Commission in 2005, “hate mail” poured into my letterbox. Anonymous correspondents said the appointment of a woman was “the beginning of the end” of AFL, it would “soften” the game, was a “joke”, saying I'll be “disruptive and difficult”. This, I could cop – I almost expected it. What I wasn't ready for was the number of women who approached me telling me I shouldn’t be proud, because I simply filled a quota; that I’ll never know if I was good enough because I wasn't tested against men. This worried me, not for myself, but because I realised how strongly women themselves felt that they could never be treated seriously if they were appointed through such a gender-targeted process.
But the facts are simple: it is highly likely it would have taken many more years to appoint a woman to the AFL Commission if there hadn't been a special recruitment process.
My view is that these “quota” roles are an opportunity. In taking them, my job has not only been to do the best possible work to help steer the organisation responsibly, but also open doors to more women and other forms of diversity. It’s been to prove that it's worth taking these steps out of what has been the long prevailing norm, rather than being some kind of experiment in political correctness; that women can actually change the tenor of the discussion and add enormous value.
For the record, the AFL has not “softened”. If anything it’s stronger, and the subsequent appointment of other women commissioners has been seen as the most natural and valuable course (no more hate mail!). Indeed, it’s been gratifying to see many more AFL Clubs appointing women to their own boards, including the president of Richmond.
I've also learnt the exquisite difference between being the one woman in the room, and where there is a more equal balance. It's fundamentally different.
When you’re the only woman, the room pivots towards you for almost every matter that can be seen through a gender lens – a sexual assault matter, a women's bullying issue or questions around what female fans or employees want from the organisation. This can have the effect of closing the gate for the men in the room to have a view. Once you get more balance in the room, something changes – not only for the women, but also for the men: there's enough difference around the table for everyone to be themselves.
When I walk into a board meeting at Mirvac, where we have gender equality achieved through a deliberate gender equality strategy by chairman John Mulcahy – it feels like the “normal” part of my life. I don’t carry the weight of any of the things I’ve been almost habituated to think about when I’m a minority: whether I’ll need to moderate my behaviour, pre-brief on an issue, how the dynamics of the room will play out.
And that’s empowering.
I realise it’s not easy to achieve balance. As a chair – at Citi Australia, Carriageworks, the Australian Council for International Development – I know it can be challenging. After you’ve found the best women, you often have to explain why they were selected, deal with criticism and demonstrate performance all within the context of your decision to attain gender equality.
I am hopeful that Australia is on its way to following the lead of other countries, albeit we are some decades behind the likes of the US – where affirmative action has existed for many years – and many European countries that accepted you can’t break the back of discrimination without quotas.
To change the prevailing mentality, organisations need to be brave and ambitious about quotas or targets and proudly talk about the fact that setting them is meaningful and will make a better business.
For women who could be recipients of those appointments, I urge you to feel a sense of pride in being approached, to accept that the appointment doesn't diminish you as a leader, but to understand that it's an opportunity, for you, other women and other forms of diversity. If you can think about it from that perspective, it’s an incredibly powerful place to be in helping in the transition to more balanced, inclusive, diverse teams.
And for the men who are discomfited by gender quotas, ask yourself, are you a high performer? If you are, you have nothing to worry about.
Sam is a member of Westpac’s Stakeholder Advisory Council.