Australian CEOs are sitting on the fence when it comes to promoting women

Lucy Slobom and Ella Grimsey pose for a photo wearing Brisbane Lions jumpers during an AFL announcement of teams in next year’s inaugural Women’s National League. Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Many male CEOs in Australia actually do very little to address gender diversity, preferring to sit on the fence, according to confidential feedback gathered by the Melbourne Business School.

The study also found that men are more motivated to champion gender diversity and join advocacy groups if they have a daughter or have personal experience of exclusion or discrimination.

“I found that a large proportion of the CEOs I interviewed were bystanders, who neither actively resist nor actively support change,” says Professor Isabel Metz who gathered the views of more than 40 prominent male CEOs across Australia.

“They’re sitting on the fence on the issue for many reasons, such as gender fatigue, lack of understanding on the business case for gender diversity, the belief that gender inequities are a ‘thing of the past’ or the fear of disapproval from male peers if they decides to shift the status quo and make a case for change.”

The research investigated why some CEOs join advocacy groups to champion women’s representation in senior leadership.

“Exclusion or discrimination experienced firsthand or vicariously through their partners and having female offspring were the biggest motivators for CEOs to join advocacy groups for gender equity and be true champions of change publicly and inside their organisations,” says Professor Metz.

She was told by one CEO: “I have a wife and daughter, and I could see the struggle that my wife had gone through, and I could see the struggle that my daughter was going through, and so there was an emotional resonance.”

Another said: “I come from a background that had the gender discrimination high on the list … I grew up in all those sexist, racist, sectarian, homophobic, all that stuff, during my childhood.”

More than 40% of CEOs said they were driven by moral values such as shame and fairness to champion gender equity change.

Despite many organisations investing resources into increasing gender diversity, Australia still lags compared to other countries, says Professor Metz.

“We have been trying to address this gender equity issue for a long time. There is still a significant pay gap, which remains stagnant, and under-representation of women at senior levels in this country,” she says.

According to the latest numbers by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD), women are being appointed to ASX 200 boards at a faster rate than ever before but this momentum needs to be sustained.

The peak director body says 42% of all directors appointed to ASX 200 boards so far in 2016 are women, compared to 5% in 2009 when the institute began compiling statistics.

As of the end of May, 23.6% of all directors of ASX 200 companies were female compared to 8.3% in 2009.

The AICD’s target is for all ASX 200 companies to have 30% female directors by the end of 2018.

Medibank Private is the best performer because females, including its chair Elizabeth Alexander, account for 71.4% of its board.

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