*New research reveals how Australia became one of three countries to reach over 30 per cent of women on top boards without legislated quotas.
*Top female board members of ASX companies share gender parity insights and top tips for landing a board role.
Joining a company board is not something most executives think of when looking for roles with flexibility, but it was that very quality that attracted Non-Executive Director and UQ Bachelor of Economics alumna Andrea Staines OAM to pursuing a career as a board member.
Andrea had always followed a less conventional path, especially as a woman in the corporate world over two decades ago. Working her way up in the male-dominated airline industry, Andrea became the first female CEO of an airline company (and one of few worldwide) at age 38, heading Australian Airlines – an international Qantas subsidiary. However, it was a lonely place for a woman, Andrea recalls.
“I came from the airline industry and then moved to transport and logistics, which is a male-oriented field – as an early senior board director and C-suite appointment, I was the only female in the room.”
However, as a single mum with two young children, Andrea wanted more flexibility in her career without compromising her ambition or proven ability to help companies thrive.
“I decided to leave the CEO role because I was a sole parent and needed something more flexible. I secured several board roles for non-listed companies, but It took me four years to get my first ASX-listed board role at Early Learning Services,” says Andrea.
Since then, Andrea’s held a wide variety of board roles, including Aurizon – an ASX30 company, Non-Executive Director for UnitingCare Queensland, is currently Deputy Chair for Australia Post, and several other boards. Yet, it’s only in more recent times that Andrea noticed she wasn’t the only female at the board meeting table.
“I’ve been a board director for 15 years, and it’s only in the last five to six years I’ve started to notice a few more females joining me in the room,” says Andrea.
Australia breaks the glass ceiling for gender parity on boards
The encouraging news is the increase of women on boards has reached new heights in Australia, according to a new report from The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School, supported by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) and Australian Gender Equality Council (AGEC).
Business School researchers investigated how Australia became one of only three countries in the world to ‘break the glass ceiling’ and reach over 30 per cent of females on top boards without legislated quotas, joining Canada and the United Kingdom.
Lead researcher and Master of Business Administration (MBA) lecturer, Dr Fitzsimmons, said the accomplishment was remarkable considering Australia had a limited pipeline of women reaching CEO roles. Presently in the ASX200, only five per cent of CEO roles are held by women.
“Our research reveals a truly encouraging result, that Australia is leading progress for women on boards at an international level despite the challenges women still face to achieve gender parity, especially in the corporate landscape,” Terry said.
The year that changed everything
“2009 was a catalyst year that would change the representation of women on company boards,” the study’s co-author Dr Yates said.
“The nation had its first female Prime Minister and Governor-General; we were in the grip of the Global Financial Crisis, and the media in many countries was highlighting the lack of diversity on company boards.”
The research found key individual and organisational influencers increased female acceptance on publicly-listed boards without legislated quotas. Influencers included financial media outlets, prominent ASX50 chairs, the 30% Club and AICD campaigns.
The rewards are worth it
According to Andrea, pursuing a career as a board member offers vast professional fulfilment.
“The things I love about a Non-Executive Director career is the professional diversity and personal flexibility. I love working with an array of boards and companies in multiple states, industries and at different lifecycle stages.”
The fulfilment in helping shape companies at all stages is also enthused by Marina Go, a Chair and Non-Executive Director for eight major companies, including Energy Australia, 7-Eleven, Adore Beauty and Autosports Group, to name a few. As she prepares to embark on her first ASX20 appointment for Transurban in December, Marina reflects on why she is passionate about diversity on boards.
“I enjoy being able to take the time to think about the longer-term risks and opportunities for a business, to be able to consider the business through the lens of strategy, and to share my knowledge and experiences for a differentiated perspective.”
Top tips for landing a board role
Andrea and Marina share their top tips for landing a board role.
1) Taking on operational roles in charge of profit and loss centres.
According to Andrea, one of the best things anyone can do (especially women) to position themselves for a board role is to take on more operational roles and positions with responsibility for cost and revenue centres, or profit and loss budgets
“Taking ownership for profit and loss, cost or revenue happens a lot more in operational roles,” says Andrea.
“But, how do we get women into operational roles? We need more women in STEM at school – it needs to start young. Until more women get more operational roles, we’re not going to increase gender parity on boards much more.”
2) Network, network and network some more
Marina advises you should use your networks to meet the people who can lead you to opportunities. That should involve a mix of board recruiters, company directors and colleagues.
“Don’t be afraid to ask someone to introduce you,” says Marina, “There is a lot of hustle involved in becoming visible to the right people.”
Andrea agrees that securing board roles takes methodical networking and constant searching for the right boards.
“Board roles sometimes only last four to five years, as there might be a takeover or conflict of interest, so you might move on early.
A full portfolio of ASX board roles is around four to five companies, and it can take up to a year to land a board role, so you’re essentially looking for potential board roles every year.”
3) Grow your expertise at an executive level
Marina believes it is important to have solid executive experience at the highest level for your area of expertise. “This is the initial value that you will bring to a board, alongside any specific form of diversity or personal experience,” says Marina.
4) Invest in the right education
With an MBA and the AICD Company Director’s Course under her belt, Marina is a big believer in lifelong learning to become ready for new board roles.
“Do the AICD course and any other form of business-focused training or education,” says Marina. “Education will ensure that when you do join your first board, you will know what’s involved, including the risks.
Diversity pays dividends
According to Terry, many studies show that diversity on boards can help manage the holistic performance of companies better.
Marina agrees that the value of diversity helps service stakeholders and customers better. “Gender diversity is important from a business perspective because directors bring their experiences and perceptions to the board table and, generally, women will have experienced the world differently to men. In order to have the full customer perspective, you need to understand the differences.”
However, Terry cautions that without systemic and social change, the 30 per cent ratio on boards for female inclusion may struggle to rise further.
“The two greatest barriers from our research were the lack of universal, affordable child care and persistent gender role stereotypes,” Dr Fitzsimmons said.
“We need a national strategy for workplace gender equality to help Australia increase the pipeline of women leaders.
“While we’ve broken one ceiling, we will hit another as women try to progress into C-Suite roles until we address these issues.”
Andrea believes education and research can help, “I think gender parity on boards needs the focus that organisations like UQ and the AICD provide to draw attention to the issue.”
Dr Terry Fitzsimmons is a Senior Lecturer in Leadership with the University of Queensland Business School and UQ MBA program. He is the Director of the AIBE Centre for Gender Equality in the Workplace, and Managing Director of the Australian Gender Equality Council (AGEC). Terry has worked with many of Australia’s largest firms on their diversity programs. He is also part of the Process and Practice Studies Research Hub.