Governor-General Quentin Bryce chose International Women’s Day to call for quotas to put more women in the boardrooms of Australian businesses. I do not agree with her.
The fact is that most women are not putting their hands up for board positions or in fact senior positions in companies and so, by putting mandatory quotas in place, you run the risk that less qualified, mediocre or at the very least not the best persons for the jobs, will end up on boards. As women, we certainly do not want to be seen as token representatives and I believe quotas might lead to this, even if it is only perceived.
It is indisputable that women are under-represented in boardrooms and in many industries at senior level. As a society we need to look at the reasons why women are holding back.
Many may still believe that the “old boys’ network” still has a stranglehold on boardrooms, and I have no doubt that in some places it does, however, generational change is definitely seeing a move away from this. I believe that shareholders of companies would prefer a board made up of the best people for the job regardless of gender.
That women have more to offer society than homemaking and childbearing is no longer in dispute. How society best captures and retains the talent and intellect that many women have to offer is where the debate should be, not around legislative compulsion.
Nature has determined that women will bear children. Women are also natural nurturers. This affects the choices women make when trying to balance work and mothering. It is often called “mothers’ guilt”, but as a working mother, I would prefer to refer to it as mothers’ need. I don’t feel guilty leaving my child for a few days a week while I work but my nurturing instinct dictates that three days working a week is my absolutely limit. This has meant that, as I come close to the birth of my second child, I have passed up an exciting opportunity to be the CFO of a soon-to-be listed company, a job I would love to do but not a sacrifice I am willing to make.
In my personal and professional life I am surrounded by women who are working mothers, some out of necessity and some for their sanity. But the common theme for us all is that time is limited and there is only so much time that we now want to dedicate to career and working life.
This work/life balance issue is not limited to working mothers. I know quite a few professional women who are not mothers, and may never be mothers, but who have made a conscious decision to spend less time working and more time enjoying other things in life.
Where many men feel largely defined by what they do, women often see work as only a part helping to define the whole.
In 2010, Bain and Co conducted a worldwide survey on gender parity in the workplace * to understand the obstacles faced by women climbing the corporate ladder.
The survey identified the following:
• A real perception gap exists between men and women. While 66 per cent of the men surveyed believed women share equal opportunity to reach their leadership goals, less than a third of women felt the same way;
• There was a difference in balancing the role of caregiver with career building. According to the survey results, in order to support a partner’s career priorities, more women than men worked from home (women: 47 per cent; men: 31 per cent); moved or relocated in support of the partner (42 per cent; 35 per cent); turned down attractive job opportunities (34 per cent; 26 per cent); pursued a flexible career path (36 per cent; 19 per cent); opted for part-time or flex-time work (30%; 10%); or simply took a leave of absence from work (26 per cent; 14 per cent); and
• Organisations need to show sustained commitment and action on gender parity. While many businesses and organisations may offer flexible-work programs to help women return to the workforce, the survey found that few have innovative promotion policies or growth paths in place that rejuvenate the careers of employees (male or female) who return after a break of a few years. So it is not surprising that women often opt to become entrepreneurs rather than climb the corporate ladder. At least one-third of small businesses in Australia are owned and operated by women.
Bain & Co’s conclusion, following its survey, was not to advocate the introduction of legislated quotas for business but to push for cultural and priority changes within organisations as a way to retain women.
I do believe that companies are beginning to embrace the issue – and that it will be lobbying and pressure on them to change that are in the best interests of women and the companies they work for, not enforced quotas.
Caroline Elliott BEc. CA
Financial and commercial consultant
* The great disappearing act: Gender parity up the corporate ladder. WEF white paper, 1/30/10 by Julie Coffman, Orit Gadiesh and Wendy Miller.