Australia: Women can forget about merit to make it on to ‘boards‘. Nothing beats being a man Print E-mail
 29 September 2009 page 54

Corporate woman

More transparency beats networking for boards

By Catherine Fox

There’s no point giving women advice to help them get onto boards if the appointment process remains frustratingly opaque, according to a new study.

The survey of 317 women, Women getting into boards, was released last week by Diann Rodgers-Healey from the Australian Centre for Leadership for women.

“It doesn’t matter how well-qualified you are, you do not have the chance to get in if there’s a lack of transparency” she says.

“This (research) dispels the whole myth that if you are equipped, you are going to increase your chance – it’s just not working.”

The recruitment process of boards is predominantly inequitable as it lacks transparency and clearly defined and realistic criteria, the study finds.  Positions are advertised to a selective group.  Women have no opportunity to apply because they do not know where there are vacancies.

Sixty-three per cent of the women surveyed for the study either hold or have held a directorship.

The research challenges the often repeated idea that somehow women with enough “merit” will automatically make it onto a shortlist.

“I challenge and debate the whole idea of merit appointments – women are never given the chance to develop merit. It’s a very elitist idea,” Rodgers-Healey says.  “How can you get to merit when you are not in the door? All the way through your career you are disadvantaged and can’t get that merit that will make you on an equal par as a man.”

Urging women to network and find mentors is all very well in theory but this advice runs the risk of women simply replicating the cosy boys’ club that stymies a broader range of appointment.  

“The sort of perception is that for a woman, it’s about playing the blokes’ games… And we have got to move beyond this.  We need as new model to put into a workplace, battling with male ideas and perceptions. When we try to step into it, it defeats the whole purpose.”

The problems women face are more complex, she adds. Even those women who get to the stage of identifying and applying for a board role may run up against indirect barriers. “When they do apply, they are judged against criteria which are discriminatory and attitudes which rate their achievement and experiences as unimportant and un-transferable,” the research finds.

There are a number of suggestions on ways to improve women’s chances of joining boards including adapting tools used already by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency.

“I think what would work is similar to what EOWA has put in place – an employer of choice for boards.  Publicly rank then and let it be known how they fit in rankings.  Once you put a figure on something, you are evaluating it publicly,” says Rodgers-Healey.

The idea of quotas or targets to aim for in women’s appointments should also be considered, she says.  

“Government needs to step in and make boards accountable and pursue quotas…Obviously women want the experience, and once the opportunity comes through they do perform. It’s not just about choice, it’s about opportunity and we do not have the opportunity.  Women are saying we want more resources but the actuality is no matter how much you get there aren’t enough equitable opportunities for you.”

The study findings make it clear women do need to be supported in their attempts to acquire skills for directorships.  “But you cannot charge a woman for these resources,” says Rodgers-Healey.

“In that age group (40s and 50s) they have families and financial commitments and we’re telling a woman to be ready for board positions and you are to be penalised for it. It should be free. This is about investment in the future.