Catherine Fox: Women internationally are pushing for quotas - Women's Agenda

Catherine Fox: Women internationally are pushing for quotas

Journalist and author Catherine Fox reports from the Global Summit of Women in Paris, where representatives from 81 countries discussed how to get more women in leadership.

Fed up with platitudes and more than ready for action, hundreds of women threw their weight behind more regulation to force a better gender mix in organisations in polling at last week’s Global Summit of Women.

They came from 81 countries to the forum, held this year in Paris, and from every possible background, but the common cause was all about getting more women in decision making roles — in communities, government and business.

A small but vocal group from Australia kept our flag flying, with the ASX diversity reporting regime and the Male Champions of Change attracting plenty of interest.

Corporate leaders including Ann Sherry, CEO of Carnival Australia, Cassandra Kelly, Co CEO of Pottinger and Stephen Fitzgerald, former CEO of Goldman Sachs Australia and a Male Champion of Change, along with consultant (and My Agenda coach) Avril Henry, all spoke at the Summit.

A poll of the audience on the best option for making progress revealed a clear endorsement of quotas, with the host country France already leading the way.

According to a panel of CEOs, which included ex-Telstra Boss Sol Trujillo and Societe Generale head Frederick Oudea, the momentum is growing for more gender balanced organisations — although Trujillo did not believe quotas are the answer.

But it was also clear that the 2011 introduction of quotas in France – with a goal of 40% by 2017 – is having an impact. Women make up about 20% of directors at larger French companies at the moment.

“France has raised the bar for other countries interested in opening up corporate board rooms to women,” according to Irene Natividad, the Summit chair and head of the Washington-based Corporate Women Directors International (CWDI) which released a study on gender on boards at the forum.

The top ten companies globally for women directors did include Australia’s Woolworths, which was better than nothing. But as Natividad pointed out, French companies were the best represented while organisations from rapidly growing economies, such as China, did not fare well.

The quota backdrop in Europe is in contrast to Australia. As well as France, Belgium, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain all have government legislated quotas.

Quotas are one lever for change but fund manager Joe Keefe, the CEO of Pax Global Funds, said tackling the travesty of just 16% women on Fortune 500 boards rests with shareholders and corporate ranks too.

“Who elects boards? Shareholders. So if you think it’s a travesty but you are investing in funds then you are part of the problem and not the solution – or your money is.”

Pax recently launched a Global Women’s Index Fund which includes about 400 companies with better levels of women in senior roles. Along with shareholder and investor action, pressure to deliver behaviour change in the corporates that dominate the world economy is a priority, Keefe said.

The power to change the rules to make workplaces more equitable lies with corporates, Microsoft France president Alain Crozier said during a debate on whether women can ‘have it all’. He said blending caring and paid work and ensuring women’s careers are not derailed is achievable if the will is there.

Having it all is a myth which sets up benchmarks that are not achievable for most women, Ann Sherry, CEO Carnival Australia pointed out. There was a need for concerted action by organisations on a range of fronts, including tackling the gender pay gap.

“Why aren’t there reporting requirements on gender pay?” she asked.

The role of the media in changing norms around women’s leadership and roles was also a focus for a panel discussion. Bloomberg editor-at-large Lisa Kasenaar is running Global Women’s Coverage for the media company which aims to mainstream women as commentators in all coverage.

The media must be encouraged to frame the conversation about diversity and establish role models, Cassandra Kelly said during a discussion on women and boards. She outlined the progress made under Australia’s voluntary regulation regime and the importance of women supporting each other to ensure culture change.

And there was plenty of interest in the Male Champions format, with Stephen Fitzgerald explaining how it worked. He described practical tools such as the ‘supplier multiplier’ which sets gender benchmarks for suppliers to the organisations represented in the MCC, and the panel pledge to ensure the CEOs will only speak at conferences with a good gender mix of presenters.

The MCC is currently developing a guidebook on how to set up a similar network he told the audience.

As the conference ended, there was a mixture of hope for change with continuing frustration about the pace of progress and the need to challenge entrenched attitudes that continue to categorise diversity as doing good rather than an economic and human rights imperative around the world.

A couple of days after the Summit ended, the Global Summit to end sexual violence against women in conflict, featuring Angelina Jolie, opened in London.

UK human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti, interviewed before speaking at the London summit, summed up the challenge pretty well.

“The biggest and most entrenched injustice on the planet is gender injustice. It is like an apartheid that covers the whole world….It is entrenched on a micro and global level; in families and then of course on an economic and political level.”


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