Commonwealth public sector boards make headway towards gender parity

By Stephen Easton

Monday October 22, 2018

The number of women on Commonwealth public sector boards has jumped up by 3% over the last financial year, reports the Minister for Women, Kelly O’Dwyer.

With a touch over 53% of appointments in 2017-18 going to women, compared to only 46.2% the year before, the overall figures at the end of June this year had men occupying 54.2% of the seats.

This is the closest to the overall goal of gender parity since the government started reporting the statistics, building on last year’s result, which was also a record even though more than half of appointees were men.

“It is fantastic to see six Commonwealth portfolios have reached or exceeded the 50 per cent target, up from two portfolios in 30 June 2017, and a further four portfolios are within only five percentage points of meeting the target,” said O’Dwyer, who took over the ministerial portfolio in December.

“We know that the different perspectives women bring to the decision-making process can have a positive impact on the outcomes delivered.”

While the federal government has an overall target of 50-50 men and women, the target for each individual board is 40% of each at minimum.

O’Dwyer only released a few headline figures on Friday afternoon, not the full yearly report for 2017-18, which will include figures for each portfolio and for the chair and deputy chair roles.

The Victorian government proudly reported in August that three years after switching from aspirational targets to mandatory quotas, women occupied 53% of seats on Victorian public sector boards.

Over that three-year period in Victoria, only 52% of appointments had to be women for the balance to shift considerably from a point where men held 61% of the seats in 2015.

The Commonwealth’s upswing of appointments to women over recent years comes after years of mixed results, with more men coming through shortly after the Coalition came to power in 2013.

O’Dwyer’s opposite number, Tanya Plibersek, promised in March that a Labor government would meet the 50% target in its first term and then aim to have women occupying at least 40% of all chair and deputy chair positions by 2025, along with gender parity in the senior executive levels of the Australian Public Service by the same year.

Board chairs and deputies were 31.8% women in mid-2017, according to the last full report against the targets, published last December.

The minister said the government was encouraging gender diversity in federal board nominations from stakeholder organisations, which include state and territory governments, and expanding its BoardLinks program.

Inclusion on the BoardLinks database previously required the endorsement of a minister, departmental secretary or “BoardLinks Champion” but now any woman can self-nominate.

“The BoardLinks program is already a highly successful tool for connecting the right women to the right opportunities,” said O’Dwyer.

“The Government is expanding and diversifying the BoardLinks database to enable self-nominations. This will greatly expand the pool of candidates with a range of skills and expertise.”

Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources David Littleproud reports that female representation on boards in his portfolio has increased to 47% since he took on the role, up from 37% around Christmas.

“Finding the best mix of candidates requires creating an environment that entices the very best to apply,” he said in a a statement on Tuesday.

“Female representation at the top levels in most industries is nowhere near good enough and we’re not getting enough applications from women partly as a result of that, so the logical thing to do is look for top candidates of both genders for leadership positions.

“If we don’t actively look for top candidates of both genders, we’re denying our nation the use of half its intellect. But above all it’s about righting a wrong of past generations having excluded women from leadership roles in agriculture.”

He said the industry had suffered a “huge” opportunity cost but would reap the benefits of diversity in future.

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got,” said Littleproud. “Our board recruitment must involve having a proper look for the best women and men – not just repeating the same old recruitment processes and getting the same results.”

He argues that “creating an environment which allows both genders to thrive” rather than “favouring women” is the best way to increase female representation.

“When outstanding female leaders are appointed, it gives others a reason to put themselves forward. Every day more rural women are improving organisations all over the country, highlighting why they should’ve been there years ago.”

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