Gender equality on boards: are we doing well enough?

An interview with Deloitte Partner and Board Member, Katherine Milesi and Deloitte Human Capital Partner, Juliet Bourke, discussing the fifth edition Women in the Boardroom report.

Earlier this month, Deloitte released its fifth edition Women in the Boardroom: A Global Perspective report, which explores the efforts of more than 60 countries to promote boardroom diversity.

The interview that follows shares the lived experience and views of two influential Deloitte women, who are passionate about gender equality within the boardroom and the broader Australian community.

Katherine Milesi – Deloitte Board Member and a founding partner of the Deloitte Digital team in Australia – she is also a leader within the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Council.

Juliet Bourke – Human Capital Partner at Deloitte and is a respected and well-known authority on Diversity and Inclusion. She has written extensively on the business benefits of embracing inclusion and is also a member of Deloitte’s Diversity and Inclusion Council.

Thank you Katherine and Juliet for taking part in this interview. We are very excited to be part of a global initiative to share this report which details gender equality progress in 60 countries around the world.

Were either of you surprised by any of the findings of the report either from an Australian perspective or a global perspective? Personally, I was surprised to see that Asia-Pacific lags behind other regions.

Juliet: There’s a lot of variation in the APAC region – in fact it’s a region of extremes. On the one hand we have market leaders like New Zealand (27.5%) and Australia (20.4%), on the other hand we have Korea (2.5%) and Japan (4.1%).

Even more importantly, both New Zealand and Australia have grown significantly each year, and that gave me insight into the report’s most fundamental finding: effort equals reward. Looking at the bigger picture, it’s clear that the countries which have put more effort into changing the game are seeing better results.

If you take Australia for instance, there has been sustained and varied effort starting with changes to ASX regulations in 2010 requiring companies to develop diversity policies and set measurable objectives (or explain why not), supported by an AICD mentorship program, followed by the introduction of the 30% club and finally in 2017 the announcement of 50% targets for government boards. All of these things have added to each other and created momentum, which is reflected in the steady increases we’ve seen in Australia over the past several years – from 8.3% on ASX 200 in 2009 to 25% as at 2017.

If you compare this to markets that have self-regulated, there has been no progress on diversity metrics.

Katherine: I think it is also important to highlight the higher percentage of women on boards within ASX listed companies. If you look at the data, in Australia, we have closer to 30% female representation on boards for ASX 20 companies. As you look at the numbers for ASX 50, ASX 100 and then ASX 200 the number slightly drops each time the group widens, before dropping again when you look at the number representative for Australian business at 20.1%.

What this shows is that the top end of town are leading the way on gender diversity, which is great – however there is still work to be done both here and in the smaller end of the corporate space to continue to drive progress.

I think this is reflective of sustained activity in Australian market, to which Juliet has referred, this activity has largely focussed on educating Boards and Board Directors on the importance of diversity. For example, the 30% club are certainly having an impact – they are aiming for 30% on ASX 200 by next year.

Katherine, you have been a member of the Deloitte board since 2012, what was your experience in securing a board position, and how has the experience been since being appointed?

Katherine: It’s been a progressive learning journey and a very hands-on experience – as well as one of observation – seeing others interact on the board. I’m very proud to be a member of the Deloitte Board, of whom 45% are women. After securing the board position, I received formal education as a director, which took the form of an intensive educational experience in corporate governance in Australia. This was approximately four months in all, comprising self-led study, workshops and assessments including exams and written assignments.

Since joining, I’ve come to appreciate it is a position of great responsibility, you need to always be alert and leaning in to the discussions. In any group there is sometimes the temptation to let others do the work – but the best boards have everybody preparing and contributing.

For me, there’s an added complexity, in that I am both within the organisation and governing the organisation, which brings about a duality of roles. One needs to be able to use their personal judgement as to what issues are relevant to the board and which pertain to your position within the organisation.

Did you seek any Board positions outside of Deloitte, if so how was that experience?

Katherine: Yes, I currently also sit on a not-for-profit board – High Resolves – who are recognised as a leader in the design and delivery of capacity-building experiences for young people.

Juliet, you have written extensively on the benefits of diversity and inclusion in workplaces. What are the risks if we are unable to push our representation of women on boards higher?

Juliet: If organisations don’t drive meaningful progress on the gender diversity front, it means they will be under-prepared and less able to adapt to the complexities of the modern world. Ensuring board diversity will mean not only tapping into the largest brain pool, but also, it will allow boards to utilise the collective intelligence that comes from men and women working together.

If you don’t have that – then how can organisations navigate the most complex environment that we’ve ever faced? We are living in a world today, where we are face global and significant demographic changes, digital transformation, political unrest, resource challenges – and they’re all happening at once.

We are facing into fundamental disruption – and we can’t do it with the brain power that we have previously relied upon, we need more.

This is to both of you: in her foreword to the report, NAB board member Anne Loveridge – who holds a number of non-executive director roles – shares her own experience in pursuing a board role and points to traditional gender roles as playing a significant barrier to women’s appointment on boards – do you agree? Do you think there are other challenges?

Juliet: Barriers to gender balance are manifold, but I think that occupational segregation and sex stereotyping play a big part. What that means is, we have fewer women in some disciplines (like business) and we have an overrepresentation in others (like health or childcare) – and not every stovepipe leads to an executive position, which leads to a board position. People with dominantly financial backgrounds are over-represented on boards and the question is: does everyone need to have that same level of capability? And of course there is the perennial issue of networks. Getting appointed to boards is a lot less transparent and rigorous than it should be.

In terms of sex stereotyping, the issue is not just about women’s roles as business leaders, but the behaviours expected when they are on the board. Which roles they fill (Chair?) and how the conversations are run (are they more inclusive or dogmatic).

Katherine: I do agree with Juliet and the challenges – however, I would say that with the rise of women on boards across the ASX 200, that those challenges are gradually being overcome.

One’s ability to get on a board is largely about skills and capability, ability to network (this is true for both men and women), being known to people who select directors (chairmen and intermediaries like head-hunters) – there’s a long lead time to getting on a board, which ultimately, is about getting yourself known.

How might we shift the perception on gender roles, so that future generations of women live in a world that is closer to 50/50?

Juliet: Change requires ownership from all stakeholders. At the board level that’s about board members, board chairs and recruiters. We’re helping the Queensland Government with its target to increase the representation of women on boards to 50% by 2020 and have developed great resources for each of those groups.

Thinking about the beginning of the journey, I imagine change requires educators and students to think much more deeply about classroom behaviours, subject selection and course programming.

And for women who are already in the system – i.e. the potential talent for future boards and executives – we can all part of the change by challenging self-perceptions and providing extra support (especially if women are working in non-traditional occupations or roles). Leaders have an extra level of responsibility in nurturing diverse talent in fields where women are underrepresented.

Back to the report, with numbers like 15% globally and 20% in Australia, should we be happy with the numbers and outcomes?

Katherine: In answering this question, I think it is important to understand the trends and also the baseline of where we have come from. If we were seeing a flat line or decrease – you would ask what is going on.

However, as the percentage has increased year on year then that is a good trend.

At Deloitte, we say the race towards gender equality is a marathon, not a sprint – and I think that is reflective of the Australian results that we have seen since the first edition of this report.

Juliet: I’m an optimist and there’s definitely reason to feel happy with the progress. On ASX 200 boards there has been a substantial increase in the percentage of women, and there’s been a ripple effect on boards below the ASX200 as well as those that are government, private and not-for-profit. Disappointingly there are some last bastions – companies with no women at all on their board. Surprising really and rather quite odd.

The bottom line is that I won’t be completely happy until the composition of boards represents the composition of the Australian market, and we are a long way from that.

What is the significance of a report like this?

Juliet: We can get very busy and distracted in the day-to-day, and after a year or so, turn around and see that we haven’t made progress. A report like this provides discipline, causes us to pause and ask “is this good enough?”, “are we moving in the right direction?”

Another great benefit is that we get to look across the initiatives driving success in other countries, learn from what they’re doing and leverage their experiences. Deloitte has done an amazing job of aggregating all this information across 60 countries into a very accessible report. For me, it’s a touchstone that I use when I visit other countries or give regional presentations.

Katherine: I too think that the ability to quickly see and learn from what other countries are doing is invaluable.

For me the global insight, benchmarking and access to initiatives is extremely helpful. This is particularly true for global companies – organisations that are operating in multiple different markets around the world. They are well-served by a report like this – to be able to quickly understand what’s happening in the different jurisdictions in which they operate.

Why is it important for you to make an impact that matters in this space?

Katherine: There is so much talent to be explored and brought into the boardrooms of Australia, by women. I think if you looked at all of the female candidates for board positions, there is still a large pool of women who do not have board positions. So there is still room to increase the overall percentage with candidates who are qualified. The bottom line is: there is ample talent.

We have an extremely different, dynamic board at Deloitte, a very inclusive board, where each individual’s perspectives are amplified – not just the women’s perspectives – our male counterparts also.

It is this diversity of thought and inclusive environment that helps to give me purpose and drives better outcomes for our customers, people and communities.

Juliet: For me, the importance of increasing female representation on boards is linked to a broader topic of equality. I am highly driven to create environments around me in which everyone has the chance to succeed and that comes from my deep seated social justice values. It might be cliché, but I want to make the world a better place, and for me that means a place which is inclusive of everyone.

Get in touch:

Juliet Bourke
Katherine Milesi

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