When the numbers are so low to begin with, it’s easy for progress on women in leadership to take a significant turn for the worse with just a couple of resignations.
Take a look at Britain, where the number of women at the helm of FTSE100 companies has halved in recent weeks. There were only four to begin with, but now there are just two: Imperial Tobacco chief Alison Cooper and Burberry boss Angela Ahrendts.
The 50% drop in female chiefs came when the bosses of miner Anglo American and media group Pearson both announced they would be standing down in October.
It showed that we can never be too optimistic about progressive change when it comes to our own measure of female success on the ASX200, given just a resignation or two can swiftly obliterate gains made when it comes to the number of female CEOs and chairs (there’s only a handful on the ASX200 to start with).
And if we can’t improve the percentage of female board appointments being made we have a long time to wait before reaching anything close to gender parity on ASX-listed boards. In 2012, progress appears to have stalled somewhat: just 24% of new ASX200 board appointments have been female (as of October 18, according to Company Directors). In 2011 that figure was 28%.
Interestingly, the two women still at the helm of a FTSE100 have reiterated their stance against quotas this week. Cooper told UK finance publication This is Money that quotas are “not the solution to anything” while Ahrendts has called the idea “dangerous”.
But Ahrendts still has faith in the pipeline, pointing out that an increasing number of female university graduates will, in time, help improve the gender balance.
In Australia, women have graduated in equal numbers since the mid-1980s. But there’s a long way to go: 51 of the ASX200 boards are still male-only.
We need more than a pipeline of women to fill these significant gender gaps in leadership. We need a cultural transformation: one that sees companies get serious about numerical targets, and introduce policies and procedures that help see more women get promoted and appointed. We need, as Eva Cox suggests today on The Conversation, boards that are willing to appoint people who don’t necessarily “fit in”.
As Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency director Helen Conway recently outlined, progress on these issues may have stalled because too many men believe that “gender diversity” has been achieved.
It hasn’t. And relying on time to solve the problem for us is not the solution.