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Women in business: board quotas not the only answer

Gee. Mention board quotas and the army of men who prefer to maintain the status quo start squealing. The spluttering rage expressed in the comments section following the Governor-General’s comments that Australia may need quotas to force more women onto boards reminds one of the outrage expressed by any ruling class sniffing the unpleasant winds of change.

But why all this focus on boards? Sure. Introduce quotas. Name and shame boards that have no female representatives. There is no question in my mind that many boards would be far better off with half of the directors being female. And as I have said before, some current male directors should be encouraged to take to the golf course sooner rather than later.

And yes, more women on boards will bring some change. The thinking is that women are more likely to promote other females onto boards and in the workplace, ensure women are paid more fairly and be more sympathetic to flexible conditions. (Female leaders like the CEO of Westpac Gail Kelly have a hard job explaining why there are no women in her executive team.)

But that is going to change only so much. Many ambitious women are simply not going to want to climb the ladder and do the necessary shoving needed to get those highly sought after positions at the top. Others who know how to play the game will be overlooked by men who consciously and unconsciously prefer to recruit people to those top positions who look, think and swagger just like them.

Equally important and usually ignored is the battle to get women to run and build their own businesses. Now, there is a huge urban myth that half of Australia’s small businesses are run by women. That battle has been won, everyone thinks.

That’s nonsense. You can use the eyes in your head to see that most small businesses are run by men.

Figures from the 2006 census show there were 1.48 million owner-managers. Of those, only a third (469,058) are female. But that is only half the story.

Only 17% of Australian businesses are run by an individual female or predominantly by females. I suspect the rest are on the books because companies at incorporations need two directors. Often the business owner’s wife will become that second signatory.

But it gets worse the bigger the business. There are very few successful female entrepreneurs in Australia — and by that I mean running businesses with revenue between $1 million to $100 million-plus.

Recognition like the BRW Rich List or Young Rich lists never feature more than 10% of self-made female entrepreneurs. In awards such as SmartCompany’s Smart 50, about 20% are females.

So imagine if we could also get more women running and growing their own businesses. The women I know who own successful businesses have a much greater focus on gender balance and making sure there are senior women in their ranks. They are also very focused on creating the culture they want, which is inclusive and definitely non-blokey.

In my case? Nearly half my direct reports are women and there are two women on our board of five, with another women in the process of being recruited. I am also very conscious when my staff hire that we keep a balance — and that means incidentally not hiring predominantly women.

So let’s not just focus on women on boards. We need to get more entrepreneurial woman starting and building businesses and acting as role models for other women. Then we are likely to see true change.

*This article was originally published on Crikey sister site SmartCompany

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  • 1
    mikeb
    Posted Wednesday, 9 March 2011 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    So how do we get more entrepreneurial woman starting and building businesses? Presumably you are not advocating quotas on that, & if you are, how would it work? It seems to me that most of the “squealing” and “spluttering” is emanating from contributors outside of the comments section.

  • 2
    MLF
    Posted Wednesday, 9 March 2011 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    So, two women on the board and loads in the office - and still we get stories that perpetuate and reinforce the myth that women must be valued by economic and career status instead of valued by the choices she makes, which incidentally might be raising well-grounded, socially responsible children who see there should be more to life than a big fat paycheck.

  • 3
    Deborah
    Posted Friday, 11 March 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    …which incidentally might be raising well-grounded, socially responsible children who see there should be more to life than a big fat paycheck…”

    That’s the world we are living in, this wonderful neoliberal, free market rules all, which has been created by men (and their female conspirators). How come socially responsible children are the responsibility of women alone, what are the men doing to contribute? I hope more than just bringing in a big fat paycheck? But speaking of paychecks, female dominated occupations/industry should have the same big fat paychecks that male dominated industry has. Australia is riding economically high on the back of half of it’s working population being undervalued and underpaid!

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