The boardroom is no longer a closed shop

Sydney Morning Herald
27 December, 2009
By Elizabeth Broderick
Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner

The recent announcement that the Australian Securities Exchange Corporate Governance Council would require companies to set measurable objectives for gender equality in senior roles was a historic decision. It heralds a brighter future for women executives and potential board members.

It heralds a brighter future for women executives and potential board members.

It is important for all women and the community at large.

It is important that the best use be made of all our citizens, unimpeded by the obvious prejudice that has existed against women in our workplaces.

Increasing the number of women at senior levels is important, not only for the women who are ready to take these roles but as a step towards transforming workplace cultures for all working women in our country. True equality between men and women will only exist when we have equal representation at all levels of the workplace.

The argument that merit is the sole criterion for selection into senior roles is clearly arrant nonsense when one considers that only 8.3per cent of board directors are women.

If we follow this logic, one would have to assume that women are either inherently less capable or have no interest in these roles.

For years, Australia has been ranked among the leading countries in the developed world in women's educational attainment. The majority of graduates from higher education institutions are female. So let's be clear men and women start their careers with equal qualifications and expectations.

It is the commitment of women to achieving high office that has been called into question.

There is no doubt the view that those positions are a "closed shop" and this is a serious impediment to the motivation of women to achieve them.

It is for that very reason that we need to see a significant proportion of those roles a "critical mass" being held by women.

It is for these reasons that we require a temporary positive discrimination in favour of women.

I'm not talking about appointing underqualified women but women of high achievement, who would otherwise be put aside because of their sex.

With the demographic changes and skills shortages that are now upon us, we just cannot afford to waste the talents of any of our people and women account for 51per cent of us.

But these changes will amount to nothing without a significant transformation in business culture.

The necessary initiatives include the setting of targets for 40per cent of directors to be women within five years. Then, if voluntary targets are not achieved, mandatory targets may become necessary.

Of course targets are only one of the changes needed to ensure equality in paid work at all levels of our businesses.

I have been a long-standing advocate of the need for flexible work arrangements to become a normal part of business culture.

Everyone has caring responsibilities at some point in their lives. Too often, it has been women who have had to make the very difficult choice of leaving paid work or settling for lower-paid, casualised jobs, in order to give caring the priority that it deserves.

If we are to ensure that women are able to move equally through the ranks of businesses, we need to develop workplace cultures where both sexes are effectively able to balance paid work responsibilities with the rest of their lives.

If we are to achieve a critical mass of women in senior levels, we need to move from a presumption that flexible work arrangements are exceptional and a trade-off for seniority and pay to a workplace culture where flexible work is the norm, with the standard full-time fixed hours roles locked in only when the business truly requires it. In my experience, this is the exception rather than the norm.

It has been encouraging to see the number of prominent and courageous business men and women who have spoken out against the status quo on women in business. It is now time for companies to move beyond rhetoric and to take firm action.

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