The Citi Australian & New Zealand Investment Conference female participation panel: (left to right) Professor Michael Hiscox, Harvard University; Mia Freedman, publisher, Mamamia; Sam Mostyn, president, Australian Council for International Development; Elizabeth Broderick, sex discrimination commissioner. 


It was 2005 when one of the biggest sporting codes in Australia decided to appoint its first female director.


After an exhaustive interview process involving 10 female candidates, Sam Mostyn became the first female AFL Commission director in the organisation’s two-decade history.

“Getting there, I was pretty proud and I was staggered in the days after being appointed that I had men – and women – come up to me, quite animatedly, and say ‘don't get too proud because you didn't go up against men to get that job’,” Mostyn said during a panel on female participation at the Citi Australian & New Zealand Investment Conference.

It represents an implicit, deep gender bias which permeates our culture although it stretches well beyond fairness and into business performance, according to Harvard University Professor Michael Hiscox.

“There is a lot more rigorous research now... that shows diversity does in fact improve innovativeness in teams and performance in teams,” he said.

Hiscox cited numerous studies which show the insidious nature of gender bias as well as the benefits of gender diversity. For example, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15 per cent more likely to outperform the median organisation from that industry, according to an analysis by consultants at McKinsey.

Women in the minority 

But despite the evidence, women make up less than 10 per cent of directors and less than 10 per cent of key management personnel in top 500 ASX-listed companies. Mostyn sits on several company boards, although property group Mirvac is a rarity with equal representation between men and women.

“If I have to hear again that we can't find enough meritorious women for these roles, I'll scream, because the data is beyond clear about the talent of women,” Mostyn said. “If merit was driving the outcome, particularly in Australia, we would have gender balanced boards and manager teams because the numbers of people out of university, and particularly in areas like finance, tells us that there are women in more numbers than men who meet the criteria to move up the ranks.”

Elizabeth Broderick, who served as Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner from 2007-2015, said change in corporate Australia was not happening fast enough.

“We get the case for change at an intellectual level but we're yet to embrace it at an emotional level,” she said. “If it's not quotas, we need targets with teeth because the fact is every institution in this nation (and I'd suggest in the US and others) is deeply rooted in a male life trajectory.”

In 2006, Norway introduced quota legislation which required companies to have at least 40 per cent female board representation by 2008 or face fines or company closures. The target was achieved in 2009 and a debate is now underway about the benefit of keeping the quota system.

“What you've done by introducing that quota is re-imagine normal,” Broderick said. “Now normal looks like gender balance on a board so why do we still need a temporary special measure?”

Mia Freedman, founder of online site Mamamia, told the Citi conference audience that many younger women she employed started out believing that merit should be the sole determinant of progress in corporate Australia – an attitude which didn’t last.

“Within a few years those women are like ‘ok, I've changed my mind’ because they see that nothing changes and they see worthy women who don't get the opportunity that men do.”

Change for the better 

Earlier this year, the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) set a target of 30 per cent female board membership by 2018 rather than face change imposed by a potential government quota. In October, AICD chief executive John Brogden said more needed to be done but, encouragingly, women now accounted for 31 per cent of S&P/ASX 200 board appointments compared to 22 per cent in 2013.

Harvard University’s Hiscox said one strategy companies can employ to tackle gender bias is to stop reviewing job candidates individually and sequentially.

“If you have a pool of candidates that are reviewed together the role of implicit bias goes down and the selection of women goes up,” he said.

The split of paid and unpaid work between men and women also remains a key issue for Broderick. “When men step into 'care', women can step more into paid work,” she said.

While the issue remains systemic, more women moving up the corporate ranks will create a positive feedback loop which encourages more women, according to Mostyn.

“When women are in positions of power it sends a very clear message to women further down that it is possible.”
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