The importance of avoiding a boys' club on your board

Wednesday 23rd September 2020 Justin Cleveland

For all the talk about the importance and value of diversity in both executive and directorial ranks, Australian organisations have been struggling.

Just 12% of executive leadership roles in ASX200 companies were held by women and only one of the 25 CEO positions hired for in the calendar year was a female.

The amount of women on boards, meanwhile, continues to hover around 30%.

This lack of diversity – both in terms of gender and ethnicity – can create a pack mentality that causes bias and unbalanced decision-making, says UniSA researcher Kathy Rao. "Women bring a unique set of values, perspectives and capabilities to top-level decision-making which can help boards address CSR issues in a more effective manner."

It’s not always a conscious decision. "Old-school attitudes tend to hold them back, partly because they don’t have a critical mass to push new ideas over the line, but also because there are a few powerful older male directors who are so focussed on profit that they disregard [corporate social responsibility (CSR)] as soft when it is raised by female directors."

Rao says that women bring a unique set of values, perspectives, and capabilities that can help boards address CSR issues in a more effective manner.

Breaking up the boys club

Unconscious bias is a massive issue for boards, says researcher and director of the UniSA Yunus Social Business Centre, Carol Tilt. "Board members’ lack of awareness of their own bias is perhaps the single most damaging factor for effective leadership.

"Australian companies need to be more proactive in offering training and incentives for more women to become actively involved in firm governance – and, to achieve this without regulatory pressures or token appointments simply to meet gender targets."

Diversity, in Tilt’s opinion, is more than just more women. It’s about finding people with different experiences. "Unfortunately, when boards look for new members, they’re often reluctant to appoint female members or candidates who have different experiences to their own, defeating the capacity to recruit a diversity of views."

Having a myopic view of what will be successful can be self-defeating. "Such a blinkered approach to governance is highly risky, and while members may not know they’re operating in such a way, a lack of gender diversity almost guarantees this outcome," said Tilt.

"As you can appreciate, influence is king on boards; if you don’t have it, you can’t make much of an impact."

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