Gerry Harvey bemoans the push for more women on boards

Gerry Harvey joins the chorus of men bemoaning the push for more women on boards

Two things in the aftermath of Catherine Brenner’s resignation from AMP were obvious and disappointing. The unabashed sexism was shocking but so too was the silence from corporate Australia in response to it.

It wasn’t for an absence of goodwill: a number of parties wanted to either vocalise their support for Brenner or at least express sharp criticism of the gendered reporting her resignation triggered. The politics of speaking up were, in some cases, fraught and pouring fuel on the fire was ultimately deemed unhelpful so publicly many directors and chairs stayed quiet.

Predictably it gave some the impetus – and free space – to unleash on the “PC agenda” of getting more women on boards.

Chris Corrigan led the charge outlining his distaste for men being overlooked in favour of less competent women, a sentiment Gerry Harvey repeated to the ABC’s chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici this weekend.

Thankfully these claims are not being swallowed whole.

In Deborah Snow’s weekend report in Fairfax Media on the Rise and Fall of Catherine Brenner a number of men and women publicly responded directly to the sexism she has faced.

“She’s become the get-squared for every white Anglo-Saxon male who feels aggrieved about not getting any board posts, supposedly because women of less calibre are getting them,” Brenner’s former boss at ABN Amro, Angus James, said. “It’s complete tripe.”

Ilana Atlas, the chair of Coca-Cola Amatil, told Fairfax Media it’s unsurprising men aren’t happy with the progression of women on boards.

“You hear some of the blokes complaining – but we are in the midst of a social revolution; now they have to compete against 100 per cent of the population, not 50 per cent.”

Kevin McCann, who has chaired Macquarie Bank, Origin Energy and Healthscope, told ABC’s Alberici that men resisting the rights of women is not new.

“If you go back through history women have always struggled against inequality. If you look at women’s property rights, getting the right to divorce or the right to vote,” he said. “Historically men have opposed those movements.”

McCann said the criticism of Brenner’s apparent lack of experience reveals a double standard.

“I was 36 when I first took my initial board,” he said. “Yes, I was inexperienced but they wanted someone with a legal background and in that role I think I was reasonably effective.”

He was not a CEO nor had he managed any thing in his career and yet he was never deemed unfit for boards.

Gerry Harvey told the ABC that men he speaks with are expressing frustration at having to put women on boards just to ‘help fill the target or make the board look better’.

“If they talk to me they say ‘Oh it looks better if I put a woman on but realistically I probably would rather have a male,” Harvey said.

A decade ago, most of the time, they would have very happily just had their pick of men with barely a thought to any alternative.

“In ten years the top 200 boards have gone from 8% female representation to 27.5% today,” Alberici said.

The discussion that Brenner’s resignation has triggered makes clear that this jump has not correlated necessarily with an increased level of acceptance or recognition for those women, the value they bring, nor the value of diversity itself.

Which is precisely why a tipping point of 30% representation is so powerful. It renders the outdated minority less relevant and less influential. One by one the dinosaurs will be left behind.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox