“The US has more qualified female board members than any other country bar none. Yet, we still lag behind in board diversity,” said Susan Ness, a Senior Fellow of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), to open this year’s SAIS Global Conference on Women in the Boardroom, held earlier this month.
The US has fallen to fourteenth place in terms of board representation of women at listed companies. Whilst other similar economies have adopted a range of new measures that have proved successful in improving diversity, the many US organisations working in this space have become frustrated at the halt in progress and disagreement on the best way forward.
One of the main questions at the conference was whether the US needs a national campaign for board diversity. Implicit in this question is whether US campaigners should set a target for listed companies and a date in which the target needs to be reached. This has been a strategy successfully employed by the Australian Institute of Company Directors and the 30% Club in calling for 30 per cent female representation on ASX 200 boards by the end of 2018. It has also worked in the UK where the government-commissioned Davies Report set a target for FTSE 100 boards to be at least 25% female by 2015, a target that has now been achieved. The UK target has now been revised to one third across the FTSE 350.
Whilst other similar economies have adopted a range of new measures that have proved successful in improving diversity, the many US organisations working in this space have become frustrated at the halt in progress and disagreement on the best way forward.
The Australian Institute of Company Directors was asked to present at the SAIS conference, held in Washington D.C., on the progress Australia has made in increasing the number of women on ASX 200 boards.
The AICD presentation focused on the four core areas that have enabled the push that has seen ASX 200 female representation on boards rise from 20.4% to 23.8% in the last 18 months.
1. Set a national campaign target and timeframe
A way to effectively communicate your key message to a national audience is important. The AICD manages the 30% Club, which has allowed it to reach the near 39,000 AICD members with the diversity message.
An important lesson the AICD has learnt during the past 18 months is that a national target and timeframe, repeated often, is vital in increasing the number of women on boards. The AICD target is simple to understand, and can be easily communicated to directors and other stakeholders.
The AICD and 30% Club have also established strong relationships with many ASX 200 chairs through initiatives such as the Chair’s Mentoring Program, which fosters the professional development of women directors.
2. Data is key
The AICD launched a quarterly gender diversity report tracking the progress of the ASX 200 in achieving the 30 per cent target in September 2015. The report includes a full list of ASX 200 companies, the number and percentage of women on their boards, the names of the chairs and whether they are members of the 30% Club. The quarterly report highlights the boards that are making progress, while keeping the public informed of the work left to do.
The publication of data also maintains pressure on laggard chairs and boards.
3. Achievements are amplified with collaboration
The AICD collaborates with other organisations working in the diversity space, with various state and federal governments, and with the investor community. Campaigns cannot be concerned with who receives credit. They have to be focused on the outcomes. Through collaboration we can ultimately provide better support to companies, ensure we don’t duplicate initiatives and showcase the efforts of worthy organisations and individuals.
Too many organisations working on separate targets can be confusing for boards and chairs and can fragment the issue.
4. The media is important in any advocacy campaign
The Australian media has increased their coverage of diversity issues. Media coverage is putting pressure on the ASX 200 companies that have no women on their boards. It’s beneficial to find the diversity advocates at different media outlets and work with them to provide interesting and insightful stories for their readership.
For more on the AICD’s gender diversity program, see our latest quarterly Gender Diversity Progress Report.