In an Australian business year with few standout deals or dramatic collapses, arguably the most notable development was the record number of women appointed to ASX200 boards.

The new ASX listing rule requiring companies to explain their gender diversity policies from next year is clearly having a profound impact.

How else to explain the fact 27% of all new ASX200 board appointments in 2010 were women, compared with a miserable 5% in 2009.

This lifted the overall number from 8.3% to 10.6%. Such momentum will surely see women reach a respectable 15% by 2012, after which a long-term target of 20% would be in range.

Blokes who attack positive discrimination to reverse the current imbalance usually come back to the old merit argument.

However, even they struggle to sustain the claim that women merit less than 10%.

Given the fact that women still only comprise about 10% of senior executives in Australia, it is hard to sustain an argument that they deserve more than 20% of public company board seats.

The lack of experience or pipeline argument is perfectly reasonable. No one is arguing for a Norweigian-style 40% quota for board seats, but surely we can do much better than 10.6%.

This shame file of ASX200 companies with no female directors is reducing.

Over the past year, the likes of Asciano, Transurban, Seek, Oz Minerals, Fairfax Media, SP Ausnet and Virgin Blue ended their all-male affairs.

Several companies such as Reece, Newcrest, JB Hi-Fi, Adelaide Brighton, Nufarm and Incitec Pivot have been placed on notice that if no females are appointed in the next few months, a hostile board tilt (possibly from a feral feminist such as Catherine Deveny) could be coming their way in 2011.

The same applies to Melbourne-based Alumina, which is chaired by conservative 70-year-old Donald Morley, who spent many years as Hugh Morgan’s finance director at WMC. Nominations close in March for this year’s Alumina AGM, so the clock is ticking.

It was amusing to hear Incitec Pivot chairman Alan Watson tell shareholders on Monday that nomination committee chair John Marlay is responsible for finding a first female director for the fertiliser giant.

This is the same Marlay who spent six long years as CEO of Alumina only ever answering to blokes.

In terms of individual women on the rise, here are some of the more notable achievements in 2010:

  • Belinda Hutchinson succeeded John Cloney as chairman of QBE Insurance in July.
  • Paula Dwyer has been anointed as the chair of Tabcorp once its casinos business is de-merged next year.
  • Sam Mostyn was added to the boards of Transurban and Virgin Blue.
  • Carolyn Hewson continued to receive rave reviews from peers and was rewarded with a spot on the BHP-Billiton board.
  • Nora Scheinkestel has also been highly rated by peers, such that Catherine Livingstone finally ended her “lone female chair” status by adding her to the Telstra board.

It is important that we don’t see the same old names being recycled through the directors club, so here are the four most notable new additions to the top 100 female directors list:

  • Carol Schwartz: joined Stockland after many years experience on a range of government and not-for-profit boards.
  • Shirley In’t Veld: was given permission by the WA government to join the Asciano board while remaining CEO of Verve Energy.
  • Denise Bradley: a giant in the education space who did the Bradley Review of universities for Julia Gillard and was therefore an excellent choice for Seek given its burgeoning online education business.
  • Philippa Stone: the Freehills partner of 20 years joined David Jones, which she has previously advised.

There are plenty of other excellent women out there who would add a lot more value than many of the tired old white blokes who dominate corporate boards, so the pressure must be maintained after what has been a very encouraging 2010.