Australia’s top boards are stacked with Anglo blokes

  • A study by the University of Sydney Business School finds that the boards of Australian companies are “male, pale, and stale.”
  • Board members of ASX100 companies are overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic and drawn from male-dominated business networks.
  • To get a board position you need “to keep your head down, speak with an Australian accent and belong to a matey club.”

Directors of Australia’s ASX100 boards are overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic men, with Aussie accents who “display traditional male leadership traits,” according to analysis by the University of Sydney Business School.

The report, Beyond the Pale: Cultural Diversity on ASX 100 Boards, is based on interviews with non-executive board members and executive recruitment firms.

“Earlier studies have indicated that around 90% of CEO and other senior executives have Anglo-Celtic or European backgrounds and this latest research indicates that the composition of ASX 100 boards is very similar,” says Associate Professor Dimitria Groutsis.

Bureau of Statistics figures show that 58% of Australians have an Anglo-Celtic background while around 18% have a European heritage. More than 20% are non-European and 3% are indigenous.

Groutsis says board members are overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic who are drawn from male-dominated business networks.

“Our interviewees made it clear that in order to get somewhere, you needed to keep your head down, speak with an Australian accent and belong to a matey club,” she says.

The Beyond the Pale report quotes an unnamed non-Anglo board member as saying that she was “tired of being asked about recipes from her homeland rather than being listened” to by her colleagues.

Another said:

When you look at who gets promoted and who doesn’t, that’s really around their traditional form of what a leader looks like and it’s not somebody from a culturally diverse background who doesn’t speak up and .. you know .. has strong ego and all the things, leadership traits, that have been sort of the traditional male leadership traits. You don’t find them in other different cultures, especially Asian cultures. That’s really prevented quite a few people that I’ve seen being able to reach the next level.

In the interviews with boards and recruiters, there was a chorus of response describing the average board in Australia, especially in the private sector, as “male, pale, and stale”.

“As such, it was noted that through limited practices of ‘growing’ a more diverse supply, the pathways to board membership will likely continue to reproduce the same type of candidate,” the report says.

The report follows earlier Business School research which found that no more than 5% of leadership positions within the ASX top 200, federal parliament, the public service and Australia’s universities are held by people from non-European cultural backgrounds.

Research for the Beyond the Pale report was undertaken by Dr Groutsis, Professor Rae Cooper and the Dean of the Business School, Professor Greg Whitwell. It was supported by the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD).

In the report, Race Relations Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane describes Australia as a “multicultural triumph”.

However he also says it’s time for more cultural diversity in the leadership of organisations.

“There’s a challenge to get board diversity right – and not just on gender,” he says. “This research will guide the action leaders need to take.”

Angus Armour, chief executive of the AICD, is quoted as saying that while his organisation is “an active voice advocating for increased gender diversity in Australian boardrooms, we recognise that cultural diversity is an important, and to date, under-researched topic”.

Launching the report, Professor Whitwell warned that by failing to take advantage of the nation’s cultural and linguistic diversity, Australia’s ASX Top 100 companies were impeding their own performance.

“Diversity inherently provides the opportunity to hear and explore different perspectives and viewpoints which leads to greater creativity and better decision making,” says Professor Whitwell. “It should also lead to more robust questioning of assumptions.”

The reports is based on in-depth interviews with 18 non-executive directors and 9 representatives from leading executive search firms.