Diversity on boards

- November 2021
Photo of an empty board room table and chairs

One of the Parbery Consultants recently reviewed an article published in June this year by the Nine papers exploring the lack of women identifying in positions of power in Australian sporting bodies. It found a dearth of women in senior administration and coaching roles in professional Australian sport, with wide reaching implications.

At Parbery, we found this interesting. There are some positive stories about gender equality in sport – for example, the number of women leading AFL clubs (three of which have led their organisations to a Grand Final berth over the past several years and four of the past five premierships). However, anecdotal evidence from across our office backed up the observations in the article. Additionally, our experience is that gender inequality in positions of power is an issue for the multitude of organisations we are part of.

So, our curiosity got the better of us. We decided to step back and look at some federated organisations in Australia (sporting and non-sporting) to bear out what we suspected to be a broader problem than just professional sport. To keep this blog short, we have focused on gender here, but it is by no means the only marker to be considered if assessing diversity in decision-making structures. In using the term gender, we are also note that gender is not binary.

So what are the key numbers?

  • Although women comprise 49.5 per cent of Government boards in Australia, on average, only 14.6 per cent of board chairs are women
  • The percentage of women directorships in the ASX200 at 30 June 2021 is 33.6
  • The For-Purpose sector fares a little better than ASX200 companies. Of the top ten For-Purpose organisations in Australia, four have female representation above the ASX200 average. However, only two of the top ten had more women governors than men, those being CanTeen and the Breast Cancer Foundation.

There has been improvement in the number of women on Government boards. However, the numbers for the other sectors remain low. This matters on several levels, but let’s loop it back to professional sport to explore this point. Chip Le Grand noted in his article the lack of women in decision-making positions in Australian professional sport has a number of flow-on effects, like decisions being made that don’t include the perspectives of female identifying athletes.

The absence of female coaches on the Australian swim team is a case in point. The coaches are selected depending on the performance of their swimmers. Yet, in the traditional hierarchy of swim clubs, where much of the lower-level coaching is done by women, the best swimmers are placed into the high-performance squads of head coaches who are almost always men.

 ‘Merit assumes that everyone starts on an equal playing field and we know that is not the case,’ [Former Swimming Australia chief executive Leigh] Russell says. ‘Merit is an excuse dressed up as a reason.’

 The article notes it’s also led to some athletes feeling unsafe in their chosen profession.

 Swimming’s cultural reckoning began with a series of social media posts by Rio Olympian Maddie Groves. Taking aim at “misogynistic perverts in sport”, Groves called out the exploitation, body shaming and gas lighting of young women in swimming.

This is certainly a terrible scenario – but what is clear is several systemic issues have contributed to the situation – the citation of merit, the noted lack of women, the lack of inclusion of people from diverse ethnicities or disability.

What is concerning, is these systemic issues are by no means exclusive to sport. Indeed, if we take the gender representation stats for the For-Purpose sector, which are better than the ASX, it’s clear there are still gaps and, quite possibly, systemic cultural issues. History shows these issues are not easily addressed without increased diversity and inclusion in decision-making structures.

At Parbery, we want all organisations to live up to their potential – and one way we help our clients do this is through governance, decision process and executive structure reviews. We know that good decisions are made when wide community representation is included in decision-making. This includes diverse representation across gender, race, ethnicity, disability, socio-economic backgrounds, etc. We also know that equal opportunity boils down to an issue of power, and particularly, an imbalance of power. If more representatives of diverse groups were present within decision-making bodies, equality would have progressed far further than it has over the past century or so.

Diversity matters from a social point of view, but it has also been shown to be critical to business success. There is so much evidence on that point it could fill a whole other article. What is clear it that whether it’s a professional sporting body, a management consulting firm, a government board or a global business leader, we can all benefit from a truly inclusive mindset in decision-making.

Further reading: The Institute of Company Directors Australia has some good resources about board diversity for organisations.

This article was researched and written by Brendan Egan, Claire Forbes and Eliza Tompson. We acknowledge the original article by Chip Le Grand which provided the inspiration for us to explore this topic.

Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash