Spirit of reciprocity alive and well: Claire's WOBUK speech

In 2012 Claire Braund travelled to the UK to launch Women on Boards UK in five cities in a two week period. Ten years on we revisit Claire's speech. 

The Women on Boards network was first started in 2001 by Claire Braund and a group of women who were inspired by the success of female athletes at the Sydney Olympic Games. 

Their objective was to help women get selected for board positions in Australia. The first networking event was held in Sydney in March 2001 and was a great success. More than 80 senior professional women gathered to meet with experienced board members who shared their knowledge, contacts and experiences.

In 2006 Women on Boards became an entity in its own right (WOB Pty Ltd) with Claire Braund, Ruth Medd, Tracey Ah Hee and Julie Ankers as board members and shareholders. 

Six years later Claire travelled to the UK to launch Women on Boards in the UK.

“We launched in five cities across the UK in a two week period with guest speakers and a big audience. All orchestrated from Fiona Hathorn’s house in London,” remembers Claire.

Claire Braund's WOBUK launch speech, 2012

I am delighted to be in the UK at a time when the spirit of your hugely successful Olympics and Paralympics still lingers in the air. It was a wonderful Games and, if the experience mirrors that of Sydney in 2000, you will find the next eight years richly rewarding for your sportsmen and women as they compete on the international stage. But a word of caution - watch out for the 12-year-slump at the 2024 Olympics - as my highly competitive nation with expectations of sporting greatness perhaps beyond our place in the world found this time around!

Thank you to PWC, Standard Bank, Thomson Reuters and Berwin Leighton Paisner for backing Women on Boards - an outsider, a relative unknown – to come to the UK.

When I met Fiona Hathorn by serendipitous good fortune in London this time last year, on my Churchill Fellowship study tour of the UK, Norway and France, we both realised the opportunity offered by launching women on boards in the UK. 

Much of what you see this evening is directly attributable to Fiona and the two women she recruited - Rachel Tranter and Rowena Ironside. Backed by Australia, these women have the capacity, skill and vision to build Women on Boards into an organisation that:

  • Supports any woman of any ethnic background, of any age, at any career stage across the UK who chooses to contribute through non-executive director, trustee and committee roles in the listed, public, not-for-profit and charity sectors.
  • Works with companies to reshape the recruitment and employment practices that are too often responsible for the gender imbalance we see on boards and at leadership level.
  • Challenges prevailing attitudes and behaviours towards gender diversity in business and beyond.

When Ruth Medd and I founded Women on Boards in Australia in 2006 we did it for one simple reason - to be the change we wanted to see in the world - to enable men and women to contribute in equal measure and for equal reward across all sectors of the economy. 

For this to occur women have to be at the table where decisions are made in all tiers of government, in large and small businesses, listed and private companies, and in the many organisations working across the community and social sectors.

Our sphere of influence was, and is, the boardroom. That small group of people whose charter it is to govern organisations in the best interests of their shareholders and to meet the obligations of the law and society. Good directors have a strong sense of stewardship – essentially a desire to leave things better than they found them. To be good corporate citizens and not to wait for the government, the regulators or, dare I say, Viviane Reding and the European Commission, to force them to act.

We set up Women on Boards because we felt many had failed in their stewardship obligations to 50 per cent of the population. There was a lot of talk about diversity, pipelines, the occasional female who had made it to the top, but with the number of director positions held by women on the Australian Stock Exchange top 200 at eight per cent and not moving, Women on Boards decided to cut through the rhetoric and take real and decisive action to be the change we - and many other professional women – wanted to see.

In six years how did we achieve 16,000 women in the network, 1,000 achieving board and committee roles and a new appetite for action at the corporate and government levels? 

  1. We opened up prospect of directorship to women who had the skills and experience to sit on boards, but had not thought of it as a career option. In particular to women in their early and mid careers who could take appropriate board roles to remain connected with the workforce while taking a break – thereby filling CV gaps and gaining new and valuable perspectives.
  2. We provided women with tangible pathways to the board room, giving them insights into how reframe their skills and experience into those required by a board, what sectors and industries to target and who could help them along the way. In other words, we raised the curtain on the what, how and why of targeting board roles.
  3. Having created demand for board roles, the third key thing we did was to focus on supply of director vacancies. To do this we allowed any organisation to post a position to our website which we circulated to our network members. This approach – essentially the opposite of the search model - requires a leap faith to trust that ‘only suitable applicants will apply’ – some of whom will be women and not known to those searching!

But why was this so important? Surely it was (and is) much better to appoint people to positions purely on merit than to recognise and promote talent from under-represented groups.

In the UK you have a long and glorious history of merit. The entire UK Civil Service has been based on a system of merit based appointments since the Northcote Trevelyan Report of 1854 recommended a process of examinations as the key form of entry to the service - rather than birth or political affiliation. Northcote’s noble attempts to reform the civil service redefined merit – to white, male and Oxbridge-educated.

Appointments to the courts and tribunals of England and Wales must also be made “solely on merit”. The recent House of Lords Constitution Committee report on Judicial Appointments looked at the vexed issue of what constituted merit, if determining merit was an objective exercise and if it could co-exist with diversity.

While the report concluded  that “a more diverse judiciary would not undermine the quality of our judges and would increase public trust and confidence in the judiciary,” it went onto find that “merit should continue to remain the sole criterion for appointments.” 

This has attracted the just criticism that continuation of the merit based appointments system will simply produce more of the same. Only one of the 12 judges on the UK Supreme Court is a woman, only five of the most 54 most senior judges in the UK are women and none are black. 

As Lord McNally told the committee – “merit is often deployed by people who, when you scratch the surface, are really talking about ‘chaps like us’.

In other words, despite the best efforts of the Judicial Appointments Commission to define it, merit is largely subjective and prey to the very natural human tendencies of conscious and unconscious bias and the desire to recruit in our own image – to run with our own packs.

The strongest defence of merit often comes in the argument against the introduction of gender targets or quotas.

Yet if you want truly merit-based appointments surely you need to open up the field to the widest possible pool of candidates. This is what targets achieve. They force boards, search firms, managers and anyone involved in recruitment to look beyond their existing field of view in their search for talent. 

In other words, to turn off the spotlight and turn on floodlight.

This is what Women on Boards does – ensures that women with the experience and qualifications to sit on boards are visible and on the radar of those looking. We then walk with them on their pathway to the boardroom – providing a wide range of support for their journey.

We do not subscribe to the argument there are insufficient women in the pipeline - which is regularly used to defend the status quo and take the heat off the boardroom.

Our experience in Australia and the UK is that there are many women with the capacity to serve on board at all levels, but lack of transparency in selection processes, narrow definitions of the skills and experience required and a tendency to 'recruit in their own image' means women do not get to the starting gate when it comes to applying for board and leadership roles.

Women are tired of waiting, tired of hoping and tired of being patronised and told things will change.

You only have to look at the numbers to see that in many sectors things are not changing. Here and in Australia, in all but the Government, we fall well short of the 40:40:20 gender targets we expect all organisations in all sectors (including the FTSE) to set and achieve at board level:

  • 40 per cent men
  • 40 per cent women
  • 20 per cent male or female.

At management and senior leadership levels the percentage of females should approximately reflect the gender split in graduate intakes. Given women have been graduating from university at parity or above in many fields of endeavour across many sectors for a very long time, there has clearly been a major loss of talent for many organisations over the past 20 years. It would be interesting to measure the real cost of this loss.

Yet while many people tend to push for a causal links between the number of female directors and employees and company profits to justify the appointment of women, they seem less inclined to quantify how much it has cost NOT to have women in these roles – and if the company would have been even more successful had the team been more diverse.

My point is that it clearly makes social and economic sense to engage fully with 50 per cent of the population. But the process of doing it can be frustratingly slow.

I would now like to turn to how we plan to export the model we have successfully established in Australia to the UK. You might possibly ask, why are we doing this and what can Australia possibly add to the activities already underway here.

There are three answers I would give you:

  1. The world is a global village and the experiences women have in seeking to access board and leadership roles are universal – particularly in two countries that share a common heritage and government and legal frameworks.
  2. Australia has been more active in the push for women on boards. We moved in 2009 to include diversity in the corporate governance code – which saw the number of female appointments to director positions in the ASX200 go from 9 in 2009 to more than 60 last year. The UK has adopted a similar approach of industry self regulation to stave off legislation and at end of October new diversity provisions will apply in its corporate governance code.
  3. The GFC crisis did not hit our institutions nearly as hard as it did Europe – meaning we did not suffer the same job losses or company failures. With our fortunes literally tied more closely to Asia, we have experienced a time of significant growth and very low unemployment. High quality talent is therefore at a premium and companies are working very hard to recruit, retain and promote women – creating major opportunities for them to shift to sectors and firms that make better provision for them to have a career and a family.

On this last point, it is interesting that we are often forced to ‘choose’ between the two great things we do for our countries – work and have a family. Yet enlightened countries, such as those in Scandinavia see the benefit of making career and children mutually inclusive not mutually exclusive.

I am aware that some of the steps we take in Australia – such as naming and shaming those companies that are following a deficit reduction model when it comes to diversity – might jar in the British culture. But I say to you, if you do not take a stand you do not achieve change. Sometimes this makes you unpopular and this is OK. 

Women on Boards is not about being popular. We have a very clear vision to improve the numbers of women on boards and a charter for action that includes: 

  • Workshops and programs to provide with women with the practical tools they need to navigate their pathway to the boardroom.
  • Information, networks and contacts needed to market their interest and achieve success.
  • Access to non-executive director, trustee, committee and other board positions via our website.
  • Powerful, purposeful and professional events.
  • A strong voice to advocate for change.

Will we stop in the UK? Probably not! We receive emails from around the world from women both seeking support and offering to help us and the members of our network.  The spirit of reciprocity is alive and well in Women on Boards. Together we can build a global coalition. Please join with us and be part of the change we all want to see.

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