“New white girls' club”: Research reveals failings in cultural diversity on Australian boards

“New white girls' club”: Research reveals failings in cultural diversity on Australian boards

Women on Boards executive director Claire Braund (Provided)

New research from Women on Boards’ (WOB) shows that while many boards have made strides to achieve gender balance, the inclusion of culturally diverse and Indigenous Australians remains lacklustre.

The Truth Be Told: Cultural Diversity on Australian Boards report assessed 232 organisations, finding only 12.8 per cent of board members are non-Anglo Celtic. Of those, roughly three per cent are Indigenous.

Women on Boards executive director Claire Braund said that a 20-year focus on gender diversity had inadvertently resulted in “replacing the old white boys’ club with the new white girls’ club.”

“Which is not to say this has been a poor outcome, but we clearly need to use the lessons we have learnt in bringing women into the boardroom to springboard to being more culturally inclusive on our boards”, she said.

“When you consider that more than 50 per cent of Australia’s population was either born overseas or are first generation Australians, there is quite a gap to close in order to better capture the experience and skills brought by our rich multicultural society on boards.”

Founded in 2006, Gosford-based WOB is a global leadership network of 55,000 women spanning all career stages and numerous sectors.

The report examined five sectors, including cooperative research centres (CRCs), federal government bodies, national sporting organisations (NSOs), research and development corporations and universities.

Each board member was assessed via desktop audit - involving its own clear limitations of definition - which involved analysing publicly available biographical information such as LinkedIn and director profiles, full names, place of birth if the information could be found publicly, and photographic reviews.

The data found that federal government bodies had the highest Indigenous representation at 5.2 per cent, while NSOs and R&D corporations had none. Further analysis showed that the data was skewed as representation occurred mostly on Indigenous-focused boards, with 76 per cent of federal government bodies having zero Indigenous representation.

Meanwhile, 2.9 per cent of university boards were found to have directors with an Indigenous background, while CRCs recorded 1.3 per cent.  

Universities also took the top spot when it came to cultural diversity, with 15.1 per cent of boards found to have directors with non-Anglo-Celtic cultural origins. Not far behind were federal government bodies at 14.6 per cent, followed by CRCs (11.3 per cent), NSOs (8.6 per cent) and R&D corporations with none.  

“It is clear that while we can wait for a formal or legislated agenda, focussed attention from industry and organisations will drive the positive change we need in this area – just as it did gender balance on boards,” Braund said.

On a more positive note, a gender balance of 40 per cent of female directors was achieved across the five sectors. The strongest performing industries were universities and federal government bodies (49 per cent), followed by NSOs (40 per cent), R&D corporations (37 per cent) and CRCs (36 per cent).

WOB acknowledged the limitations of the findings, as it was difficult to determine the ethnicity of individuals with little publicly available information about their background online. As a result, decisions were made based on the available information.

The organisation supports Diversity Council Australia’s (DCA) recommendation that to address cultural gaps, organisations should regularly undertake an annual Counting Culture Survey, with this measure extended to Boards.

Other recommendations include the Australian Business Registry Service adding ethnicity as a category for all persons requiring a director ID, as well as ASIC reporting on the cultural diversity of directors as an aggregate, removing individual identifiers.

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