‘It still happens’ – white men dominate ASX boards

This article written by Carol Saffer was originally featured on The Age website on 19th July 2017. Click here to access the original article.

There was something else aside from Anne Ward’s decades of commercial law and financial services experience that helped her land a spot on the board of accounting software company MYOB.

MYOB was specifically searching for a woman to join its entirely male board as it prepared to list on the ASX in 2015.

“Being the only woman wasn’t a big issue,” says Ward.

“I have been in that position before. I was intrigued by the offer as I had not worked in the technology industry before. I was told that’s not what the board was looking for, they already had tech expertise. They were looking for the hard skills I had.”

There are still a significant number of boards governing ASX-listed companies out there yet to recruit their first female director. New statistics from Watermark Search International shows that across the ASX 300 there are still 46 companies with no women holding a spot on the board. Five of those companies sit in the ASX 100.

Ward says it’s true that sexist attitudes have become less overt over the course of her career since starting out in the law in the 1980s.

“In those days and increasingly less now I would say [but] it still happens. There is still unconscious bias. It makes you more careful of whom you choose to work with.”

Since Ward joined the board they have made a commitment to a diversity policy to increase the gender balance to 30 per cent female board directors.

Joe Armoa

MYOB board director Anne Ward. Photo: Joe Armao, Fairfax Media.

As the chairman of the remuneration and nominations committee searching for a new board member in January 2017, Ward’s top criterion was another woman.

The committee searched thoroughly and found the right woman with the identified skill set required.

Ming Long

Ming Long says companies need to hire talented Asian recruits. Photo: Steven Siewert

Ward has served on 17 boards and chaired seven, across a range of industries. She is the chair of Zoos Victoria where the gender balance is five women and two men.

With both men set to vacate their spots, Ward is keen to not appoint two more women.

“Hire experienced and qualified Asians then lead them onto the board

Ming Long

She says, “an all female board is the same as an all male board. There needs to be balance”.

There has been improvement. The survey shows that since 2014 the proportion of ASX50 board seats held by women has increased from 22.6 per cent to 30 per cent.

The Watermark survey also revealed that 96 per cent of all ASX board directors are from Anglo-Celtic or European backgrounds.

That is a “very scary” statistic, says Watermark managing partner Graham Willis.

“Given we have a strong export economy and regard ourselves as having a world class multicultural environment it makes good business sense to address cultural diversity on our boards to reflect the true nature of Australia’s multicultural society,” he says.

The board room needs to have “awareness that we are looking very white,” says Willis.

Willis says gender has had a lot of publicity and focus and is paying off. The next issue should be cultural diversity so that the board room reflects the Australian population.

Ming Long, a non-executive director on Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand and a member on the Finance and Audit committee of the University of Sydney, agrees

“The next cab of the rank should be cultural diversity,” says Long, who was also fund manager of the $2.5 billion Investa Office Fund until last year.

“Hire experienced and qualified Asians then lead them onto the board. Attract cultural diversity and you can emulate the success of economic and financial benefits to an organisation achieved by gender diversity,” says Long.

“By introducing diversity into your board the whole journey of change comes with it.”

Ward too is keen to ensure there is a balance not just of gender but also of cultural background. She believes cultural diversity brings different perspectives to the board table.

Sector diversity is also considered very important by Ward.

“If you join a board not know anything about its sector you bring an outside/in perspective that helps avoid inward thinking by the board. Rethink is healthy,” says Ward.

2017 Board Diversity Index

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We are pleased to launch our third Board Diversity Index. This latest Index demonstrates that the majority of ASX300 listed companies are yet to fully embrace diverse boards, despite evidence showing that superior business results are produced with this approach.

View the 2017 Board Diversity Index