5 October 2011
No on quotas: Rural Finance chair Sonia Petering, Alexandra Gartmann from the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal and Senator Bridget McKenzie at the rural and regional women’s lunch.
THERE are more women on boards and in parliaments, but the imbalance continues, writes GENEVIEVE BARLOW
Want to start a fiery debate around your dinner table?
Try the one about whether Australia should move to mandate quotas for women on company and government boards.
If my hunch is right, women in the 50-plus age bracket will say: “Yes, yes, yes.”
They’re hanging by their clipped nails to the eroding cliff edge of old feminism and are determined to hang on screaming until the numbers change, until Australia’s gaping record on unequal pay for women and the imbalance of genders in parliaments and on company boards are addressed. Me included.
Then there’ll be the next age group that says: “No thanks, we can make it to board level without anyone enforcing anything. In fact, if you do that, we’ll feel embarrassed and we’ll never know whether we got here by merit or compunction.”
And then, when the numbers are balanced, those coming up behind will shrug their shoulders and ask: “Equal what?”.
As if there never was any imbalance.
Arguing pretty convincingly for the negative on quotas were the three high profile rural women at the Rural Press Club of Victoria’s inaugural rural and regional women’s lunch near Bendigo recently.
Rural Finance Board chair Sonia Petering, Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal chief executive officer Alexandra Gartmann and Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie are all a big “no” for quotas.
“If we put rules in place, some companies will push back against them,” Alexandra said.
She thinks there’s a smarter way to change the power landscape.
And it’s simple – do not purchase shares in companies that do not have equal numbers of women and men on their boards. She also is a fan of addressing what she calls “enabling factors”.
By this she means that companies and governments should provide or subsidise childcare costs and the costs of attending meetings for rural women.
Both are huge barriers for country women especially.
Rural Finance chair Sonia Petering argued that it would not make for engaged and functioning boards if companies had to appoint a token woman or two just to comply with the law.
“Mandating quotas does not encourage the right practice and we want meritocracy to prevail where appropriately skilled and competent women are appointed as the best person for the job, not because companies have to fill a quota,” Sonia said.
She said recent work and general activity and awareness by the market had and would continue to have an influence on increasing the number of women on ASX-listed boards, from the current dismal number of about 13 per cent.
Quoting an Australian Institute of Company Directors magazine article, she said research in Norway showed quotas do not have any impact on the number of women in senior management (below board level), or increase the number of female chairmen, boost cultural change within an organisation or improve its board selection practices.
Senator McKenzie, a member of the all-female Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee in Federal Parliament, said women had reached board level without quotas and it was up to incumbent board members to ensure the line-up of potential new directors included women.
Gen Y did not feel a gender inequity and putting quotas in would make it think there was.
Sixty-six of 226 federal MPs (29 per cent) are female.
In Victoria, 42 of 128 state MPs (32.8 per cent) are female, in NSW the proportion is 25 per cent (34 of 135), in South Australia it is 27 per cent (18 of 69) and in Tasmania 30 per cent (12 of 40).
Still, I wonder how the world would be if the Abolition of Slavery Act had not been passed and if, instead, we’d relied on people changing their minds about slavery in their own good time.
On the other hand, laws banning racial segregation haven’t banished racism, either.