Finding gender balance: looking beyond the usual (male) suspects

By David Donaldson

Tuesday December 6, 2016

People in a meeting

A common refrain from an organisation failing to meet gender targets is that there aren’t enough women to be found in their line of work.

Undoubtedly this is true in many cases. But the example of Victoria’s water boards shows the problem can be overcome with dedicated effort and a willingness to do things differently, in this case by considering a much wide pool of candidates than in the past.

In April 2015, Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville announced all 135 positions on the state’s 19 water boards would be spilled in an effort to bring in more women and put a greater focus on tackling climate change.

“You can bring more skills to a board — you don’t have to have been in that sector.”

Women comprised 38.5% of water board directors and only 16% of board chairs prior to the review. A few months later, following a concerted effort to boost female representation, women made up 50.3% of board directors and 42% of chairs.

“The behind-the-scenes, I could write a little book on it,” says the secretary of the responsible agency, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning’s Adam Fennessy.

Many thought it would be especially difficult to find qualified and interested women in rural areas far from Melbourne.

“The first thing I was told was for the further regional corporations like Lower Murray Water or Wannon or East Gippsland, you won’t get the depth of women for those boards,” Fennessy explained at last month’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2016 scorecard launch in Melbourne.

“That’s mainly because the assumption is that retired water engineers, who tend to be men, are the people who tend to be on water boards, plus retired accountants, interestingly.

“My view is: to be on a board and have good governance skills, you have to understand the community and finance and legal risk and service delivery and regional issues, and they’re broadly held skills. So we kind of went around our normal processes.”

Searching in different places, and reconsidering whether it was necessary for all board members to have experience in the water sector, helped broaden the pool of potential recruits.

“I spoke to people like [then-Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commissioner] Kate Jenkins and said, ‘can you give me your lists please?’ We looked at the community services sector, the education sector, the health and hospitals sector. There are a lot of very capable women on those boards,” Fennessy said.

“We also set an internal target for 53% of women on the shortlist to push through the interview process, because we just figured there would be a bias in the system.”

The process also “had a huge positive ripple effect of energising a lot of women”, he added.

Fennessy acknowledges that spilling all positions also created a governance risk by interrupting continuity. Ultimately all boards had at least one returning member, with some having three or four.

It also “created a different narrative — you can bring more skills to a board, you don’t have to have been in that sector. It changed the way we recruited. We’re now applying that to other sectors,” he explained.

The next stage has been a little harder. After obtaining gender-equal boards, the government is trying to improve female representation in water corporation management.

Until very recently, all the managing directors were men.

“So we write to the boards, and for three years I’ve been asking to bring about more gender equal management teams, and shifted I think 1% last year from 27% to 28%,” Fennessy said.

“We’re now working very closely with boards when positions come up. We finally have a new managing director of Barwon Water who is not a man … Highly qualified and eminent to run a water authority but she didn’t apply initially because she wouldn’t have thought of doing that, but we’ve worked with about four or five recruitment firms that understood a disruptive way of creating a shortlist and basically working a lot harder to create a gender equal shortlist.”

The quality of applicants is much broader and the range of skills and people applying for these roles “is better”, the secretary said — a phenomenon DELWP chief information officer Claire Foo has noted is occurring across the department.

“And I’ve learned from talking to chief executive women — we have to link it to remuneration,” he added.

There are “quite a few unhappy managing directors” at the moment because their performance is now linked to improving gender diversity in their teams, he revealed.

“There’s a lot of things that need to be done.”

The number of women on government boards in Victoria has jumped from 39% to 49% over the past six months.

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