Sydney Institute debates Quotas for Boards

Last Thursday, Elizabeth Broderick, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination met with David Gonski, Chancellor of UNSW, Chairman of ASX Ltd, Coca Cola Amatil Ltd and Investec Bank Australia Ltd to debate on “Board Representation: Balancing the Gender Mix” – essentially a discussion on the pros and cons of introducing quotas for the number of women on company boards.  The Sydney Institute, who hosted the debate, is a privately funded not-for-profit current affairs forum devoted to encouraging debate and discussion. For those that couldn’t make it to the event, we thought you’d like to hear a summary of the discussion. Also, the Sydney Institute has a podcast of the debate on their podcast page.

Elizabeth and David were in strong agreement that there are not enough women on boards however they have a divergence of opinion on how that change might occur. Elizabeth introduced a new terminology to the debate – the introduction of “Temporary Special Measures” and with her wider portfolio of responsibilities, she reminded us that there is a strong connection culturally with how women are treated in corporate life and the way they are treated elsewhere in life.  She argued that change can only happen with critical mass on boards i.e. a minimum of 40% of either gender on boards within five years and that this will only happen with the ‘jolt’ of quotas, targets, ‘call them what you will’. There is a very interesting comment posted by Tim Chapman on a recent article by Elizabeth in The Punch which sums up the theme of Elizabeth’s argument for quotas.

We admire David for his strong leadership in tackling this difficult subject and taking on this debate with Elizabeth.  He put a strong case that businesses must be allowed to have freedom and that if they are not across this gender balance issue they will fail as “they are not in tune with what is going on, they are not great businesses” but we felt that his argument was weakened by his need for ‘us’ to be able to ‘invite’ women in on ‘our own terms’, his comparison of the terrible experience of being the only Australian on a board as similar to the problems for women on boards and his fear that if we start with intervention to increase the numbers of women, then what? The floodgates would be open for wider diversity calls and greater scrutiny. Heaven forbid.

We agree with Elizabeth that supply of women for boards or senior management is not a problem, demand just needs to catch up. We also agree with David that good businesses will be urgently and seriously addressing the retention and recruitment of women in their firms.

Thanks to the Sydney Institute, Anne Henderson and Carol Schwartz for hosting this important debate.