The share of women on ASX200 boards has risen from 8.3 per cent in 2008 to 33.6 per cent in 2021, making Australia one of just three countries to crack the 30 per cent threshold without legislated quotas.
This is the finding from a new study by a University of Queensland (UQ) Business School team, which dug through the literature and interviewed 33 key insiders, including ASX50 board chairs, executive recruiters, and female CEOs.
The research and report Towards Board Gender Parity was supported by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) and the Australian Gender Equality Council (AGEC).
Dr Miriam Yates, who co-authored the study along with Dr Terrance Fitzsimmons and Professor Victor Callan, said the aim was to identify what drove this trend and support it.
"Two key drivers for change included the shift in reporting on diversity within the ASX Corporate Governance Council Recommendations and the AICD's board mentoring program," she said.
"The ASX recommendation facilitated greater transparency, while we know from the research that formalised mentoring can be the catalyst for 'opening the door' to under-represented group members within the workplace."
Public campaigns from institutional investors, as well as the establishment of the 30% Club Australia, were also found to have brought wider scrutiny to the issue.
Last year, industry super fund HESTA launched the 40:40 Vision program, which aims to see women fill at least 40 per cent of executive roles in ASX200 companies by 2030.
"In many ways, this change was cumulative, with each initiative building on the work of that which had come before," Dr Yates said.
The picture, though, wasn't all rosy.
The UQ team also found universal affordable childcare and gender stereotyping continued to box women out of the boardroom.
Researchers made a total of seven recommendations, including the establishment of a formal alliance of key influencers, the reinvigoration of board readiness and mentoring programs, and the adoption of a 40/40/20 target for board gender parity (40 per cent female, 40 per cent male, and 20 per cent either way).
Women on Boards executive director Claire Braund described the news as encouraging, but emphasised growth hasn't translated through to leadership positions.
"There is not really any significant trend for the number of female chairs or CEOs on ASX200 boards - nor is there any uptick in the number of culturally diverse directors," Braund said.
"Gender balance on boards has been climbing steadily across all sectors since we started to track it back in 2010.
"The worst sector for representation of women on ASX boards is the ASX200+ where the number of women effectively drops off a cliff," she said, adding only one in 10 blue chip company chairs was female.
This dearth of executive positions was raised by AICD CEO and managing director Angus Armour in the report itself.
"For the AICD and many boards, the business case for increased board diversity is clear and has never been more important," Armour said.
"However, Australia's continued improvement in board diversity sits in stark contrast to our diminishing position in terms of most other gender equality indicators, including gender diversity among top executives.
"This phenomenon is replicated in countries where quotas on boards have led to the highest rates of female board participation, such as France, Sweden, and Germany. These markets also continue to see stubbornly low levels of female executives."
Armour said CEO recruitment was the responsibility of the board, and boards must also turn their minds to ensuring that C-suite roles across their organisation are attracting female candidates.
"Our hope is that this report will help invigorate the conversation on diversity and the work still required to improve outcomes for women. It provides guidance on the direction of our future efforts and points to an opportunity for greater alignment," he said.
Last year, a separate report found just one of 25 CEO appointments at ASX200 companies was female. The overall representation of women fell from 12 to 10.
The UQ team traced the increase in boardroom gender diversity back to 2009, which Dr Yates referred to as a catalyst year.
"The nation had its first female Prime Minister and Governor-General; we were in the grip of the Global Financial Crisis and the media in many countries was highlighting the lack of diversity on company boards," Dr Yates said.
Lelde Smits, co-founder of The Capital Network and a director of the Australian Shareholders' Association, says Australia was given a wake-up call two years later in 2011 when a damning report from the organisation Analysis & Public Observatory (APO) showed
"It was a big shock, amplified by news that countries like Norway in the same year had put in quotas and achieved 40 per cent women on its listed company boards," Smits said.
"A cultural change has since been gaining momentum in Australia as people realise the problem and demand action.
"Influencing the move to equality have been prominent business leaders and equality advocates, community and industry groups and the media. We are now seeing an increasing focus not just on diversity, but publicly celebrating those who facilitate it."
AGEC chair Coral Ross AM said the report provided valuable insights and lessons as we work towards gender parity at the board level and other facets of Australian society.
"The achievement of more than 30 per cent of women on boards is even more remarkable given Australia's lack of progress in other gender equality measures," she said.
"What became apparent during the research was that there was no single institution or group of institutions that coordinated the changes and initiatives that led to the increase of women board members. Rather, "it's the mosaic of all the players that has enabled this change".
"There was a broad consensus from interviewees that continued progress required the broader involvement of government, society and business to address the systematic barriers."
Ross explained participants highlighted the lack of clear and tangible goals at a national level for workplace gender equality.
"The systemic barriers to women's progression in the workforce remain unaddressed and are responsible for a shrinking pipeline of women into leadership positions," she said.
"A further identified barrier was the current board skills matrix, which favours CEO experience for board positions - when just 5 per cent of CEOs are women."
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