Women as Leaders: Claire Braund – Executive Director of Women on Boards

For the next interview in our series in the lead up to the Women, Management and Work Conference in Sydney on 29th & 30th July, I spoke to Claire Braund, the co-founder and Executive Director of Women on Boards (WOB).

When asked why there aren’t more women on boards in Australia, Claire Braund doesn’t mix words, “Because men don’t put them there.”

Hang on, that can’t be right? Isn’t it because women just aren’t putting their hands up? “Nope,” says Claire Braund. “They’re just overlooked in many instances. The key reason that women don’t get on boards is because men just don’t put there there.”

“The other issue is that the director pool for ASX500 and more particularly ASX200 companies, is drawn from a very narrow talent pool. For example, ex-CEOs, former partners in major service firms. People don’t think laterally about the transferable skill set. In terms of putting together the skills mix, they haven’t looked outside the traditional source.”

In an effort to increase women’s participation on boards, a group of business women which included Claire Braund, started Women on Boards (WOB) in 2001. The women said they were inspired by the success of female athletes at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, to help women get selected for board positions in Australia. Women on Boards became a project of the National Foundation for Australian Women and directors from private, public, government and sports boards supported the initiative. The first networking event was held in Sydney in March 2001 and was attended by 80 senior professional women. Today, the organisation has more than 8,000 registered members.

When asked why she and others decided to create the organisation, Claire Braund told Australian Women Online, “Nobody was really doing anything practical and sensible about getting women on to boards. There was lots of talking. Lots of research. There was a lot of arm waving but there was very little in the way of practical ‘how to’ strategic action.”

The current representation of women on boards in the ASX200 is only 9% and more than half do not have a single woman on their board. This figure is up from 8.7% in 2009, but still way too low when you consider that just over half of all university graduates in this country are female.

“There’s been a few new appointments since we last measured it,” said Claire Braund. “All the available women have been snaffled up because everyone is worried about the implementation of the new ASX Corporate Governance guidelines at the beginning of next year.”

In 2009 WOB was invited to make a submission to the ASX Corporate Governance Council in relation to expanding the Corporate Governance Principles and Recommendations to require each entity listed on the Australian Securities Exchange – on an “if not, why not?” basis – to adopt and disclose a diversity policy that includes measurable objectives relating to gender.

“We have worked very closely with the ASX Corporate Governance Council, which I think has been very ably and well lead by Eric Mayne in this regard.”

It is perhaps unfortunate that not all men are as supportive of the ASX Corporate Governance Council Recommendations on Diversity as Mr Eric Mayne and I recall reading a lot of criticism of the new principles in the media, when they first announced.

To all those critics out there, Claire Braund says, “Get over it boys! The current system is not based on merit. If it were based on merit, 93% of the Directors of the ASX200 would not be men.”

“If the system were merit based, more than 10.7% of the top senior executives of the ASX200 would be female. From the time a child is young through until the child leaves school and goes to university, there are pathways for girls and pathways for boys. The pathway for boys often includes intrinsic mentoring programs, they get pulled through by powerful people. For women it doesn’t work the same way, they don’t get pulled up to the same extent.”

“If you look at the facts, more than 50% of graduates of law, business and accounting are female. Add on ten years and how many partners in law firms are female? You’d be scratching nationally to make 15%. So what happens to them? They get fed up and they leave.”

“So I’m saying in terms of under-utilising the investment we have made in people’s higher education, plus the fact that we’re moving on to a major skills shortage, it’s actually a huge economic loss issue for the country.”

To those women who would like to position themselves for company directorships, Claire Braund has this advice, “Stay in good line management and operational roles, that kind of experience is invaluable. Attach yourself to several very good mentors, internal and external company mentors.”

“And don’t put the company ahead of yourself. As tempting as it might be, when push comes to shove, you really need to be looking after yourself. We find incredibly experienced women with fantastic CVs and a wealth of experience who just don’t pitch themselves up there. As a general rule, women tend to under-sell themselves.”

One of the solutions being put forward by the Australian business community right now, is the creation of mentoring programs where male business leaders mentor women in business. Back in April of this year,Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick announced the creation of two such programs by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) and the Business Council of Australia (BCA).

In response Claire Braund had this to say: “The AICD chairs mentoring program is very interesting. They’re picked a group of likely suspects and they’re going to get them into directorships. The cynical amongst us might ask why has it taken them this long and an organised program to be actively doing this as chairs anyway.”

“There’s little known about the BCA’s CEO mentoring program but apparently they’re meant to be mentoring women to be CEOs. I think if they’re converted and committed blokes, which most of them are from what I’ve read, then they probably need to be mentoring male CEOs to get some cultural change going as well. The enlightened CEOs who are men, need to be mentoring the non-enlightened CEOs as well as women.”

“We’ve got to be very careful with all these mentoring programs. A lot of women are going around muttering that it’s a very paternalistic approach. Some women have said we don’t need mentoring, we just need the invitation. Women don’t need mentoring to get on boards because we’ve got the smarts, we’ve got the work experience and what we need is the opportunity, we need a bit of parity, we need a bit of equality here.”

“We’re saying the ASX200 needs to achieve 25% by 2012 or we’ll start to push for mandatory quotas.”

Claire Braund will speaking at the Women, Management and Work Conference in Sydney on 29th – 30th July 2010. For more information or to register visit the website: Imsf.mq.edu.au/wmwc

About Women on Boards
Registering with Women on Boards is free and they provide a number of services which are free. They also offer additional services on a subscription basis. WOB runs networking events, workshops and programs which are pathways to directorships.

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