Lack of women on boards restricts perspectives, outcomes

In celebration of International Women's Day earlier in March, one of Australia's leading company directors Paula Dwyer, chair of ASX100 groups Tabcorp, Healthscope and an independent non-executive director at ANZ, spoke with ANZ's head of digital and social media Amanda Gome at Melbourne's Alexandra Club.

In front of 100 professional women, Dwyer offered some frank views on a broad range of issues including diversity in boardrooms and how Australia compares with other first-world countries.

"In the age group 35 to 44, the participation of women is at the same levels it was in 1990. And it is not increasing."
Paula Dwyer, Chair of ASX100 groups Tabcorp, Healthscope and an independent non-executive director at ANZ

Below is an edited version of the interview.

Gome: We know 80 per cent of boardrooms in Australia are still made up of men. Does that matter? Aren't men running things properly anyway?

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Dwyer: Things are being run properly but our country needs to have a greater participation of women in the workforce to continue to be prosperous and for us to reach our potential as a nation.

Australia is very different to other first-world countries in that the participation of women is lower at higher levels of leadership than in other countries. That really affects the way decisions are made and how the policy framework within which we operate is settled.

There are many reasons why International Women's Day is celebrated and those reasons are still very pertinent in Australia. We have very masculine decision-making frameworks in this country, in our regulatory frameworks and our corporate frameworks.

In the age group 35 to 44, the participation of women is at the same levels it was in 1990. And it is not increasing.

In Australia when women have a family they traditionally opt out of the workforce for a period. And there are very few incentives for well-educated women to return.

One of my principle campaigns is to see the introduction of tax-deductible childcare in Australia. I think it's a very disappointing aspect of our society when people are denied equal tax breaks irrespective of where they choose to have their children looked after. So people who would otherwise be able to contribute and go back to work simply don't.

Gome: So do you think if there were more women in the boardrooms and having a voice in the business community, we would actually see different outcomes?

Dwyer: I do. Look to the federal cabinet: on what basis can you say the cabinet is representative? There are 19 members in cabinet, of which only two are women. I just feel that's not representative of the way our community's structured.

Our decision making is different. Women come at a problem from a different perspective. We have different skills which are inherent to our gender, not just our education and ability. I think those should be brought to bear on issues of national and commercial significance.

Gome: You say we compare badly to other first-world countries on female participation. What can we do about it?

Dwyer: Well I think we can collectively encourage our daughters to step out into the world. We've got a fantastic society. Australia's a brilliant place to live. And I believe it's a great thing for a woman to have a choice: if I want to be contributing in a different way, I should be able to do that. Presently our structures don't permit that to the extent that they should.

I mean you're in a similar position Amanda, you work hard you've got a family. What do you think?

Gome: I think if you had asked me when I was 24 would we be in the situation we are now, where we have 80 per cent of our boardrooms comprised of men and 35 of our top boards don't have women, and women do double the housework of men, I would have said 'You're joking."

But on the other hand I still think there has never been a better time to be a female leader in business. So much is changing within our organisations. As you said, there's big pressure on boards and CEOs to change things. There's amazing initiatives, like the push for flexibility.

So I think the opportunities are starting to really develop. We're actually putting in place the stepping stones for big change.

Dwyer: I think that's right. There's a fundamental recognition that our country needs to marshal all its resources to be successful. We can't just rely on a particular group of people.

We are a sparsely populated country. We've got great natural resources, we've got a brilliant education system and we've got a multicultural society. We should harness all those resources to build a really great Australia.

Gome: You are the only woman to chair two companies in the top 100, Tabcorp with turnover of $12 billion and Healthcare company Healthscope turnover $2.3 billion. Isn't it marvellous to be at your stage of life? Your health is good and if everything works out, you've got another 15 to 20 years of career building left?

Dwyer: Yes. I'm relatively young for this career anyway and I've been a non-executive director for 15 years. I think so much is possible and I am still very ambitious.

I always say to young women who say 'Oh, I want to have career and I want to step out', it's so important you approach it thinking anything's possible. Although it may be uncomfortable, women have got the choices. They've just go to use them!

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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