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Gender balance makes public sector boards more effective, more reflective

South Australian senator Nick Xenophon wants to force the Commonwealth government to meet its currently aspirational target for more women on government boards.

In 2012-13, 13 of 18 government boards met the target — 40% of each gender with 20% wiggle room — but the following year only nine met the goal.

Xenophon described the drop in the number of boards that met the target as “alarming” and commented that it was not reflective of the fact that 51% of Australians are female.

However, the 2012-13 figures from the Office for Women averaged across all 18 boards show the overall percentage of women hovering quite close to the target. In 2013-14, women made up 41% of the total pool of public sector board members, and 38% in 2013-14.

When the figures came out last December, Women on Boards executive director Claire Braund said the overall drop was small but concerning.

“What concerns us is what happens in [2015 and 2016] – unless attention is paid to arresting this decline it could very easily blow out to 6-10% where it will become exponentially harder to arrest,” she said at the time.

Braund said it “spoke volumes” that the biggest decline in the number of women serving on boards was in the Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolio, where 41.2% female board representation plunged to 29.4% between the two most recent reports from the Office for Women, which is part of the Prime Minister’s Department. She also criticised the “language and the rhetoric” in the latest report on the statistics.

“The report is a scant nine pages, defensive in tone and leads with the Government’s $1 million program for special scholarships and mentoring which perpetuate the myth there is not enough qualified and experienced women to be invited to serve on Government boards,” she said. “We all know this is errant nonsense and at odds with prevailing views in a progressive economy and society.”

Of all 639 government board members newly appointed in 2013-14, 63.5% were men.

Last Thursday, Xenophon’s private senator’s bill became the subject of an inquiry by the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee, which will report by September 8. According to a statement from the senator:

“The Bill aims to establish the Australian Government as a leader in balanced gender representation, with expert evidence mounting that boards with roughly equal numbers of men and women are more effective.”

As well as hardening the target, the bill would also create new reporting requirements for each portfolio to provide more detailed information on each board under its umbrella. The relevant minister would table the resulting information in parliament. Portfolio agencies would still need to give the Office for Women information about gender representation on boards to inform its report on the situation, as is currently the case.

Speaking at the IPAA Victoria’s recent Public Sector Week events, Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Chris Eccles said diversity in public sector leadership roles was important not only to avoid excluding people of talent, but also because the sector should represent the community it exists to serve.

“My view is that you can never be fully effective as a public service in developing policy solutions, while you are not yourself representative of the community who you are seeking to serve and develop policy solutions in response to,” said Eccles, who is a member of the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Male Champions of Change program.

“So there’s just a logic that … if talent is gender-neutral, why would you ever short-change yourself by not having equal representation at the senior levels of the executive? That makes perfect sense to me.”

Eccles said the same point also applied to diversity more generally.

“To get the greatest representation of talent you need to have regard to the full diversity of our community. If we are going to be the most talented public service, we need to be drawing on that.”

The draft bill includes exceptions for courts and tribunals, and appointments made by non-government third parties that are beyond the government’s control, or situations where the holder of a particular office is required to take up the role. Boards with 4 members or less and those with a maximum number of members that makes the 40-40 outcome mathematically impossible would also be excluded, and there would be a clause excusing organisations that have made “reasonable efforts” to find someone of the required gender. The explanatory memorandum states:

“For these purposes, reasonable efforts would include where all of the following steps have been taken:

a.        the board vacancy has been advertised and/or there has been a call for expressions of interest in the board position;

b.       relevant government databases such as AppointWomen or BoardLinks have been searched for potential candidates;

c.        a gender balanced shortlist of candidates has been compiled;

d.       candidates have been interviewed that reflect the gender balance of the shortlist; and

e.        each candidate has been evaluated against a consistent set of selection criteria.”

When the “reasonable efforts” excuse is used, the appointing body would have to do its best to meet the target of at least 40% of each gender “to the greatest extent possible”.

Xenophon’s bill was co-sponsored in the Senate by independents Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus, and Larissa Waters of the Greens.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.