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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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