Australia should not introduce quotas to lift the numbers of women on boards despite the slow pace of change, according to David Gonski, ANZ and Coca-Cola Amatil chairman.
“I am against quotas but that doesn’t mean I’m against targets,” he told a Women in Banking and Finance lunch in Sydney. “That doesn’t mean I’m against righting a wrong … it’s also wrong that we are dominated by males around our tables.”
The gender challenge for organisations was one of the major themes of corporate life today according to Gonski but not the only one. He said the impact of technology and social media in particular were transformational forces. And he was also critical of a “certain xenophobia” holding Australian companies back from reaping the rewards of the Asian Century.
Gonski told the lunch other initiatives should be introduced to encourage women to reach chief executive and board level but quotas encouraged the wrong type of perceptions and attitudes.
“I’m against quotas because I think it’s the start of a wedge. If you look at Germany there are quotas for what staff you need to have on the board and I think it has held companies in Germany back.”
“The much better thing is for us to see the problem and work towards a solution that works for each company and each person.”
Gonski identified initiatives like Male Champions of Change as very important because they encouraged CEOs to take direct action. “CEOs are very important and powerful people and if they can walk the talk and lead their companies, that’s a very significant thing,” he said.
“The companies that I have seen that have been successful in bringing women through the ranks and indeed onto the board have generally involved people at the top leading that. You can’t get it done if the people at the top are only adhering to rules and don’t really believe.”
Gonski conceded the representation of women at senior corporate level was changing too slowly and more needed to be done but he believed change would come.
“I don’t know if that will be at 30 per cent or 35 but there will be a tipping point. We have to get there,” he said.
Gonski also had some advice for women who wanted to join boards. He said both men and women came to him with the view that joining a board is an easier option than management and they want to take time to "smell the roses".
But he said the reality was joining a board is a big responsibility.
“Being a company director for me is my profession. It's my job. I believe in it and I believe being a director like any other profession requires one to think of it as a role,” he said. “I don’t see it as a retirement job or a job that can be done part time.”
Gonski pointed to non-profit boards as an important way to build skills and networks as long as people are on these boards for the right reasons.
“I’m an appalling golfer, I don’t know very much about sport and I don’t know which way to look at a rugby match,” he said. “But I do absolutely savour being around a table with gifted people who are doing anything from arts to education, to indigenous health and so on. I think people realise that and lo and behold they want you to be with them in their business.”
Gonski noted technology and social media were radical forces in the corporate world. Businesses are becoming social as they follow their customers onto social media networks and Gonski revealed he is being “reverse mentored” by younger, socially media savvy staff at ANZ - along with the rest of the management board.
The social media and technology side of business is transformational, according to Gonski.
“I’m not necessarily the most proficient at it but I am being reversed mentored by very talented people and I will savour everything they teach me…although I probably won’t be a perfect student,” he confessed.
Gonski, who has worked closely with many big names in business including Frank Lowy, Kerry Stokes and James Packer, also gave some advice on how to say no.
“People who are really at the top are much easier to deal with than people who are on the way to the top,” he said.
“They are able to make decisions and don’t have to pretend to anybody and generally they may have strong views - but they want to hear alternate views. They may not go with what you say but they love people who stand firm and say what most of the people around them don’t.”
Gonski also said that one of the reasons for taking on the chair of ANZ was its Asia Pacific strategy. He says the real opportunity for ANZ is the growth options that Asia provides.
“I admit we have a certain xenophobia in Australia and I think it’s out-dated,” he said. “It’s unusual that ANZ wants to do business in Asia Pacific when it should be the norm. Just two weeks ago the board went to China and I just couldn’t get over the opportunities that I could see. I see big growth there.”
Gonski also offered his perspective on the vexing question of work/life balance noting that he had a good balance but admitting he worked a 75 hour week.
“I like my work. One of the things I’ve been absolutely privileged in is diversity and I’m talking about diversity of interests,” he said.
“In the average week I could do one or two graduations at the university, I could be involved with the bank at the ANZ, I could be dealing with Coca Cola and I could also be talking telecommunications.”
“It’s a pretty diverse field and if that’s work then that’s a lot of work but I don’t find it work and I enjoy it and that’s my involvement in life.”
Photographer: Lucas Jarvis.