Diversity on boards – a new paradigm

“After a four-year campaign to increase gender diversity on Australian boards, the 30 per cent target has been reached.”

In this blog Gabrielle Schroder, our Group Director reflects on the journey that has led to achieving the 30% objective.

After a decade of concerted work and effort on the part of many organisations and individuals to raise awareness of both the benefit of achieving an optimum level of diversity on boards, and the lack of it on Australian boards, it is interesting to reflect on how we’ve arrived at this milestone, as a professional working at one of the very institutions that spearheaded this movement here.

When I started in 2008 the AICD was already investigating the lack of diversity on the boards of ASX200 companies as an issue – primarily as one of equity.  It was early days in terms of data and evidence to suggest that diversity actually makes a difference to the performance of boards and organisations, let alone the more sophisticated work of Dr Juliet Burke and others in relation to its impact on group decision-making in later years.

It made sense for the nation’s primary Director Institute, as a membership body, to investigate.  After all, the profile of our membership was not too far removed from the profile of ASX200 companies which, at the time, was less than 8%.

Fortunately the Institute had an enlightened head of Policy in Rob Elliot who had the foresight to appoint a (female) professional to investigate what more could be done.  But, it wasn’t until the arrival of John Colvin as CEO later that year that things really got moving.

With the unwavering support of the AICD board, chaired initially by John Storey and quickly followed by Rick Lee AM, John was unequivocal in his focus on improving the participation of women on boards. And in particular, participation of women in our top and most influential boards. Our nation’s biggest employers. These pillars of our society that have such a bearing on our way of life. None involved in AICD at the time had any doubt about what was important – to him, as our leader. And it shaped us as an Institution, immediately and profoundly.

Having said that, it was not smooth sailing. The restraining forces inherent in the Australian corporate governance system that had been created over the better part of a century were considerable, and our membership, particularly in some quarters, represented a powerful concentration of those forces.   But he put a stake in the ground, mobilised resources and was fearless in prioritising effort at a whole-of-Institute level.  So together over the next decade we set out to systematically build the profile of women amongst our membership.  50% female representation was our target in everything we did – conference speakers, event panels, member committees, research, everything.  We didn’t always achieve this, but the effort was visible and every interaction raised the question – why not?

And so my first learning is this:

  • What we stand for as leaders matters … materially.
  • Pick one issue.
  • Be clear.
  • Be focussed.
  • Be relentless in the pursuit of something worth fighting for.
  • Make your time of influence count.

 

The real game-changer came with the introduction of the AICD’s ASX200 Chairman’s Mentoring Program, unearthing an enthusiastic but until then latent desire on the part of our most influential leaders to do something about it.  AICD was perhaps the only organisation that could provide the vehicle to mobilise us a community in order to effect the change required.

That first group of mentors boasted a who’s-who of directors in Australia – all incredible individuals whose wisdom and intelligence was characteristically graced with a beautiful humility and an eagerness to learn about the barriers that were preventing women from contributing to their full potential in environments of most influence.  All gave of their time over many subsequent years to mentor, coach and support the progress of women through real appointments. Real numbers. Real progress.  For their part, the female mentees in these first and subsequent cohorts were equally extraordinary … who would have thought!

What was most interesting is that without exception, when asked about their experience, these Chairman would say that they learnt as much, if not more, from those they mentored as the women themselves.  Many Chairmen had had little opportunity to experience what it felt like sitting around the table of individuals with a very different life experience to themselves.  Not through any fault. It just was.  The level of consciousness just hadn’t been there, and therefore the fact that women were not involved was never really questioned or considered. By creating a different conversation it gave the Chairman a different perspective – a different paradigm through which to consider the dynamics of the board, and the impact that this was most likely having on the performance of their organisations.  It changed the way they carried their leadership responsibility, for the better.

So my second learning is this:

  • Without purposeful, conscious leadership, we significantly undercut the potential of the collective human endeavour.
  • Ask curious questions.
  • Raise your level of awareness of the things that are presenting barriers to progress.
  • Cultivate a genuine desire to seek out alternate views and be prepared to be shaped by these, and to change.

 

This is the lesson given by those pioneering Chairmen who stood up to be counted when it mattered and made the difference.

Between  2009 – 2014 much was achieved without quotas and by 2015 the number had reached 21%.  Good, but still not enough. The research had caught up by then and we knew that a minimum of 30% of any minority group was needed before the minority became parity …. a legitimate voice at the table that could be heard.

This was a revelation to me. By this time I was more involved in working directly with boards, and as I observed patterns of dialogue and decision-making around the board table, it was obvious. In boards where there was less than the benchmark, decisions were inevitably being made through a certain world-view. Perspectives expressed were often variations of a theme, rather than genuine alternatives.  Where the mix was closer to parity, there was a much greater share of voice and therefore decisions benefitted from a wider range of perspectives. Better, more informed decisions that made a material difference to the direction of the company. For good.

So 30% became the number and the AICD joined forces with the 30% Club to set specific targets and specific timeframes. The next few years had to count. And it did, and here we are.

As I reflect on the many people and organisations that have been involved in this movement at various stages over the last ten-plus years – including unsung heroes like Rhian Richardson, Matt Pritchard, Anthea McIntyre and Sonja Price whose brilliance in the execution of the AICD’s work cannot be underestimated – I can’t help but be inspired … to do more, be more, by giving in a way that enables others to achieve their full potential and to create environments that enable change on the issues that matter.

And so my third learning is this:

  • Give of yourself for the achievement of others, always.
  • It is through them that your own potential is fully realised.

 

The achievement of this milestone today is a measure of progress. We have more work to do, but this is a moment to pause, reflect and to celebrate. Congratulations to those that continue to carry the baton – to Angus Amour and the AICD; to Nicola Wakefield Evans and the Australian Chapter of the 30% Club; and to the many inspiring individuals involved along the way that have done so much for the progress of women in positions of leadership and influence.  We are all tremendous beneficiaries of this great work.

By Gabrielle Schroder