National Australia Bank chairman Michael Chaney was asked a fairly standard question about the lack of women on his board at the AGM in Brisbane last Thursday and his response was most illuminating:

I’d like to see more women on the board. Peter Duncan left the board 15 months ago now, and I said to the directors ‘let’s see if we can find another female’. We have two, which is a bigger proportion than most, but not enough in my view. I would like to see 50% of the board being women. I actually then carried out a search over what turned out to be about a year, and interviewed quite a few female candidates. During the time our view of the sort of qualifications we needed in a new director mutated a little bit, but I still said that’s fine we will find them in a female, and in the end we have not been able to do that. We are in discussion with somebody else and I think we may well appoint a replacement for Peter Duncan in the new year, if we can finalise that, but is likely to be a male. This is a really topical issue, but a really difficult issue, I think. One of the reasons you don’t see many women on boards, you don’t see many women in senior management jobs in companies. It is necessary, I think, for that to occur first, in practice, before you end up with a lot of women on boards. You do get women, obviously, who are highly qualified in the professions, and we have a couple of women, one of whom has had corporate experience and the other regulatory and legal experience, who are great contributors to our board, but for the qualifications we were looking for, in the end, we said that is the important thing, as far as governing the company is concerned, and we should get a woman if we can, but not otherwise, and so that’s where it has landed. But I can tell you that going forward I will always have a bias toward that, if we can do it.

So there you have it. The chairman of NAB set out to find a woman, interviewed the best available talent around and then decided none of them cut the mustard.

I hit the blokey David Jones board with a similar question last month and Katie Lahey, the lonely female director at this company dominated by female staff and customers, didn’t even hide her contempt for the fact that women still only represent a pathetic 8% of public company directors in Australia.

It is clear that the time for words has passed and there is now a need for legislation, regulation and direct action.

Victorian Attorney-General and deputy premier Rob Hulls has written to the top 200 ASX listed companies asking why female representation is so low and less than 10% even bothered to reply.

As was mentioned during this interview with 774 ABC Melbourne’s Lindy Burns on November 6, maybe we need to employ the tactic of getting some notorious woman such as Pauline Hanson to start nominating for boards.

While out-going BHP-Billiton chairman Don Argus is giving speeches assessing the qualities of the four male CEOs who ran the company on his watch, he is silent on the question of why the boardroom of Australia’s biggest company remains a bloke-only zone.

Hanson, it’s time to run for the BHP board every year until they appoint at least one woman, preferably two. Let’s shame them into action. After all, it’s only been nine long years since Margaret Jackson, the first and only female director in BHP’s history, departed the scene.

Peter Fray

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