From Board to Bored: Resisting gender fatigue requires strategic choices on board diversity

By (Guest Contributor) Adele Langton //

Is it ok to discriminate again yet?

Can you imagine a worse question being asked in the halls of Australian ASX firms, government departments and small businesses? Anything more demoralising for the highly qualified women, youth and non-Anglo Celtics who are so tantalisingly close to the C-suites and boardrooms?

Well watch out, it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. Because – wait for it – after decades of diversity bias, we are now perilously close to the realm of diversity fatigue. Great!  

And the latest iteration in the diversity discussion, a push to promote more millennials into Australia’s boardrooms, is one that could unfortunately threaten years of effort for a sensible gender split in our workplaces.  

A colleague recently said the dreaded call to the boss’s office used to involve the workplace’s worst six words: “let’s talk about your quarterly results.”   But it is now “it’s time for quarterly diversity training” that sends shivers through the spines of C-suiters across the land.

In an environment where unconscious bias training is about as popular as a prostate exam, we can’t risk the diversity domain becoming crowded and competitive, or risk Australian businesses feeling crippled by compliance obligations.  

But suddenly it has become trendy to talk about young people in the boardroom, sharing their digitally-literate, socially conscious insights with their older office compatriots.

An Australian executive hearing this would be justified in responding with one, or both, of two reactions: “Hold on, does this mean we are finished with ‘the gender thing?’”; and “Dear god, do I now have to comply with this too”?

Australia, we have a workplace diversity problem. But we don’t fix it by making the problem seem harder for the people we need to buy-in from.  Just like the classic Three Stooges skit, the boat has been taking on water. But saying now that our gender focus is insufficient and we have to think about age, and culture, and race, is like shooting a hole in the boat to get that water out.  

Let’s be clear: Australian boardrooms are not diverse.

Far too frequently it is the old and bold that occupy Australia’s boardrooms, and this hasn’t changed in…well…ever.  We are almost spoiled for choice in the data available to highlight the bleak state of affairs.  Two statistics that particularly stand out: the median company director in Australia is male and well over 60[i]; and for every 100 ASX directors, 2 are culturally diverse women and 64 are Anglo-Celtic men[ii].

But let’s also be realistic: this issue is about as unsexy as it gets.  Whether people are saying it out loud or not, there is evidence of energy seriously waning on the diversity task.  It may be because of boredom, or a sense of the issue having been solved.  But whatever the reason – and however much hearing that people feel weary talking about an issue we are living through makes you want to smash your face into a wall – we have to care about this.  Women may have hard-fought and barely-there gains, but we have a sense of momentum.    

So how do we talk about a problem that people are sick of hearing about?

Well, we need to make the right choices at the right time. What I’m arguing is the importance of sequencing.

Do we need more young people on Australian boards?  Of course.  But, while for diversity advocates it may seem like being forced to choose a favourite child, we must focus on the gender challenge first.

There are three major reasons for this.

First, the facts. There are reams of evidence specifically connecting women in leadership with better business outcomes. We know that companies with female board representation deliver better performance and higher profitability[iii].  They are also more ethical[iv], associated with higher levels of CSR[v], and more in tune with customer demographic needs.

Two: the flow-on effects.  Having women on boards is like compound interest – research has shown that the key to attracting women to boards is increasing the visibility of women succeeding on boards.

And there are even bigger, more important issues at play here.  Gender gaps persist in almost every facet of this country.  15% of Federal Cabinet.  5% of CEOs[vi].  15% pay gap[vii]. Why on earth would girls believe it when we tell them they can do anything?  

We only need to look at the recent Lisa Wilkinson affair to see that we are not used to seeing women in prominent, powerful positions – when news broke that she would be joining The Project, articles immediately emerged assuming she would replace Carrie Bickmore.  TWO women at the desk?! Surely not!  Being able to actually see women in positions of power is profoundly impactful and is desperately required to move the needle.

Third: the future.  As the number of female board representatives rises, this is likely to spur greater board diversity. The momentum will breed further diversity, including for youth.  We have evidence for this: Norway’s push for mandatory female board representation generated diversity beyond gender to include different backgrounds, education and experience.

It would be self-defeating for diversity advocates to be pitted against each other, but the gender diversity argument is just a stronger case right now.   Yes, organisations need to navigate transformational technological challenges.  But companies should be holistically tech-savvy – if they’re only thinking about this in terms of one position at the Board level, it’s too little too late.   There are also definitional and scope issues: what is a young person?  Are we going to require a certain age limit or experience level?  

In contrast – put simply, we know what a female is.  I’ll add a fourth reason for prioritising gender diversity: the finish line.  The definitional work has been done, we have a framework, and we are finally starting to see some results.  Industry has been incentivised to improve via mandatory reporting.  There are gender diversity targets for government boards.  Prominent male leaders are signing up to be Male Champions of Change.  Companies are on track for us to start finally seeing some real results – and that has been no mean feat.  

We need to get the message across: stick with us, Australia. Fear not, boards of the nation.

As diversity advocates, let’s agree to take a strategic, staged approach to getting boards where they need to be.  But let’s not risk stifling the gender diversity campaign as we take on this task.  It’s too important to get wrong.

Adele Langton is a MBA Candidate at the University of Sydney. See below for more about Adele.


[i] “Does age matter”, Australian Institute of Company Directors Company Director Magazine

[ii] “Double jeopardy and the dearth of culturally diverse women in ASX leadership” Diversity Council of Australia

[iii] “Is Gender Diversity Profitable? Evidence from a Global Study”, The Peterson Institute for International Economics and EY / “More women on the board, more profits”, La Trobe University,-more-profits

[iv] Why Diversity Matters”, Catalyst

[v] “Gender And Corporate Social Responsibility: It’s A Matter Of Sustainability”, Catalyst

[vi] “ASX 200 has just 11 female CEOs, and 41 have no executive women leaders”, Sydney Morning Herald

[vii] “Australia’s gender pay gap statistics”, Workplace Gender Equality Agency

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About Adele and her links to Future Directors

Adele Langton is a recipient of the UN Women Australia National Committee MBA Scholarship and is completing her MBA at the University of Sydney. Future Directors Institute CEO, Paul Smith, met Adele when he was asked to present and pitch a compelling challenge to a class of MBA students. He chose boardroom diversity and the pace of change.

Each student was asked to write an opinion piece on a related topic. Paul was impressed with Adele’s contribution to the debate and we’ve decided to publish it.

Aside from being a MBA student, Adele works for an Australian-American consultancy firm, serving as an adviser to U.S businesses on the Australian market and providing economic market and legal advice to American firms.

Prior to this role, Adele spent a decade working in a range of roles within the Federal Government. She served as Deputy Chief of Staff to the Federal Attorney General and Federal Minister for Justice and Home Affairs in the Rudd and Gillard governments. Adele also worked as a senior government lawyer for the Commonwealth Government.

Before her time in government Adele served in a number of private and community sector legal roles.

She has also worked for a range of non-profit organisations in both Australia and the U.S focused on issues affecting women including women’s safety, equality, advocacy and empowerment.   Adele is a member of the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue and a fellow of the McKell Institute.

Adele holds a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) and Bachelor of Economics (Social Sciences) from the University of Sydney and has undertaken post-graduate courses at the NSW College of Law, Macquarie Graduate School of Management and the Brookings Institution.

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