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Sep 7, 2007

No room for a women’s agenda on mahogany row

The corporate board woman is a rare animal indeed – and only accepted if some other board has tried her out and she has not been found wanting.

I was once invited to a meeting of well-heeled women at a theatre company headquarters in Melbourne. The invitation came from the chairperson of the theatre company board, a woman who figures prominently among the very few anointed to corporate boards in Australia.

As with the corporate careers of these few, her star has risen and risen, shone and shone. At the moment it is somewhat tarnished although not so greatly as the woman who headed a company board notorious for its callous approach to the woes of workers who contracted mortal illness from working in the company’s operations.

Although the reason for the meeting was never made entirely clear, no doubt it was held to encourage us all – perceived as high-flyers and, hence, high-earners – to become sponsors of or donors to the theatre company and its productions.

My clearest recollection is, however, of the amazingly crass approach taken to lunch. Lunch was served – for the rest of us, as it transpired. Whilst we were invited to partake of open sandwiches – nicely enough presented it’s true – the theatre company chairperson’s personal assistant ostentatiously entered the room bearing a tray topped by a lone salad platter. This was equally ostentatiously placed before the chairperson who commenced to eat her exclusive fare without appreciation of the comedic features of the episode.

One wondered whether the assistant was double-billed as a food taster, and that life in the world of the theatre board was more dangerous than the rest of us knew. Or was the chairperson allergic to bread? Or on a calorie controlled diet? Suffering from some obscure disease exacerbated by open sandwiches? Undesirous of eating from the same platters as her guests? Making some point about the exclusiveness of her exalted chairperson post? Just plain rude?

As a diner with her own dietary habits, I have every appreciation of the need not to limit the variety of foods served to others, simply because I have idiosyncratic tastes. But it takes little wit or skill to manage this without making any distinction apparent. On this occasion, mine host could easily have arranged for all platters to be liberally garnished with salad items, then (like the rest of us) have made her choice from the communal offering.

Does it all matter? Possibly not. Yet one wonders if this is the way women make it onto corporate boards – for so few do, and those who do must have some distinctive characteristics which make them acceptable within the corporate culture, or even desirable.

Setting oneself apart from other women, showing a monumental disdain for collegiality in so distinctively not “dining together”, and adopting the arrogance of executive dependency upon the lowly assistant who must tend to every need – including serving a personalised lunch – no doubt resonates with the male corporate crowd. Not that they would remark upon it of course, for they would notice it subliminally only: the woman who fits in with their corporate ethos.

The latest statistics show that in 2006, of all new directors appointed to top 100 companies, 70 per cent were already on the boards of top-100 companies. For 2005, the figure was 63.4 per cent. Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI) research shows that in 2004, only 27 per cent of new top-100 company directs were already on top-100 company boards.

More tellingly, it shows the paucity of women on these boards – and that those women who are there are more likely than men to hold two or more seats. No prizes for guessing really. The women who distinguish themselves by adopting and adhering to the male corporate ethos will be noted as “okay”. They will not rock the boat, or make the lives of their fellow board members uncomfortable. Not for them “running a feminist line” or raising women’s issues. After all, what do women’s issues have to do with corporations and their boards?

Why should corporate board members have to waste their time listening to matters that are outside their ken and, hence, have no relevance to members, boards, or corporations? Perhaps the proof is in the telling of the women who make it to one board – and never fulfill the ACSI norm of surpassing their male counterparts by becoming even more likely than they to hold multiple board appointments.

I recall running into one such woman in the airport at Melbourne. She had been appointed to the board of one of the “big” banks in the 1980s. This being the 1980s, she was still there – though in the last months of her first, and as it proved only, term.

“Won’t you be going on now to emulate those other women corporate board appointees,” I asked, confident in her positive reply. Laughing wryly, she swiftly disabused me.

“Hardly,” she said. “I’ve put agenda items up at every board meeting, raising issues of women and banking, women and finance, women and credit. They’re thoroughly sick of it – not because they deal with the issues but because even seeing them on the paper raises their ire or their boredom. They won’t be inviting me back.”

She of course had begun in the Women’s Movement when women came in at a rush in the 1970s. One of the original Women’s Electoral Lobbyists, she had stayed true to her feminist ethics. She remains with the crew who believe that women who “make it” carry with them an obligation to support and promote other women, rather than concentrating only upon themselves.

She recognised she was a woman, that she was where she was because of other women’s lobbying, support, and putting themselves on the line so that women could succeed – in men’s sphere. That she had held out against the seductiveness of being sucked into the masculine ethos was a credit to her. In these circumstances, she could expect no credit or quarter from the masculine strongholds represented by corporate board culture.

With increasing emphasis on money, power and profit, and overweening aggrandisement of those who run corporations, no change can be expected – at least in the near future.

ACSI research can be counted upon to continue to confirm that the corporate board woman is a rare animal indeed – and only accepted if some other board has tried her out and she has not been found wanting.

To be found wanting for women – all women – remains taboo in the world of corporations and their boards.

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