Only 11% of the members of the boards of Australia’s 200 largest public companies are women. I don’t know what the equilibrium proportion of women on boards would be in a world without gender discrimination, but it is surely a lot higher than 11%. Perhaps quotas will be needed at some stage, but that seems a very blunt instrument, and a bit defeatist really. I think it would be better if we try other measures first, and I have a specific suggestion.
Directors are elected at the annual general meeting (AGM) of shareholders of firms. The vast majority are elected unopposed. Shareholders simply rubber stamp the election of directors that are proposed by the existing board. If the new board members proposed by the existing board are all men, then the question that should arise from the shareholders is ‘why are you not putting forward some strong women candidates for election to the board’. The answer to this question is presumably ‘we examined all the potential candidates and of the persons who were available to join our board, these men are the best candidates – gender was not a consideration – it simply turns out that the best available candidates are men’.
That assertion is hard to refute because the shareholders don’t know definitively who the alternative available female candidates for the board positions are. To get around that problem we could make a list of women who are available for board appointments. In that case the shareholders could point to the list and ask ‘why is the proposed new director David Johnson a better choice than Mary Serna?. We know that Mary Serna is available and highly qualified for a directorship on our company. Why has her name not been put forward?’ A specific challenge to the proposed candidates is obviously more difficult to refute.
So, I think that women who have the ability, experience, time and willingness to be directors of ASX200 companies should send their resumes to the keepers of the list — lets say the Melbourne Business School — where their availability becomes public knowledge. I know this is asking a lot of the female candidates, but it takes a bit of sacrifice to get thinks changed for the better. Is it a serious problem or is it not?
If a long list of women suitable for senior directorships cannot be assembled then back to drawing board to find out why not and consider whether 11% is the wrong figure. But that seems highly improbable.
A long list of good women candidates would presumably be very helpful to the firms that do want to increase their number of female directors. But crucially, the list would allow very pointed and difficult questions when firms present only male candidates for directors positions at AGMs.