'We could see the agenda needed changing' | Claire Braund on why she started Women on Boards 


Full transcript (recorded 2022):

Women on Boards was founded back in 2006. It came out of a movement after the Sydney Olympic Games, which, if we can all believe it, were held 23 years ago. I was at the Cathy Freeman final and I can still vividly recall the atmosphere in that stadium.

Women did particularly well at those games, but there were very few women in leadership and board roles. Around that time Ruth Medd was having a coffee with Catherine Ordway, who happened to be - and still is - an expert around anti-doping and a lawyer who does a lot of consultation to the sports bodies. Together they decided they should do something about this.

Ruth happened to be on the board of the National Foundation for Australian Women, which still is still going strong. It was one of the auspicing bodies that had been set up many years ago and was proactive in pushing the women's agenda into government policy. At the higher level NFAW was spearheaded by Marie Coleman AO - the first woman to ever head a government department in Australia

So WOB started off that way. A grant was received from the government, the only one we've ever had really, in about 2003.

I met Ruth 20 years ago because I was on the board of an agricultural body. So it started off as a nascent movement as a way to connect people through to board roles, a way to connect women to those who were on the radar, those who had the gift of putting them on the radar. So that was Ruth and I, a little bit younger, and we did a lot of that early heavy lifting.

Liz Broderick came to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner's role in 2007, so there was quite a lot of movement there. But the ASX was still largely very recalcitrant about the issue of moving women into board roles.

In 2011 I did my Churchill Fellowship and did several trips to Norway where I saw a lot about quota law. Of course, over here we were very unkeen on quota law, so we started to do things like change the corporate governance principles and guidelines. And that was part of the process of really starting to shift the way that we were thinking about women on board roles.

'Mavericks Incorporated'

When we started, there were 7 or 8% women on the ASX 200. There's now plus 30%.

And none of the other sectors were being measured, nobody was really doing much on it. So we had the great opportunity to sort of be ‘Mavericks Incorporated’ and be quite tough about the whole issue.

Fast forward to 2012, and we partnered with three women in the UK. And I travelled over there on the back of my Churchill Fellowship and we set up Women on Boards in the UK.

So why did Ruth and I do it? We really did it because we could see that the agenda needed changing. We thought, right, we're a small group, so how can we actually do that? Well, what we can actually do is we can start to influence the number of women who are sitting at the decision-making level, at the strategy setting, on the strategy bodies for organisations. And if we do that everywhere - in government, in the ASX, in the private sector, in the nonprofit sector - that can be our contribution to having the trickle down impact that you need to start to really shift change.

Our agenda was always 40% women on boards and in leadership roles and has been for years. And we got that actually out of the Norwegian quota law, which is a 40:40:20 quota law, which is 40% to men, 40% women, and 20% of any other gender.

But did you know, in Norway it is just as illegal to have more than 60% women on the board as it is to have 60% men on the board? So it was never, in fact, the women's quota, it was in fact just a quota law.

How did we go? Well, we needed to establish a baseline, and there were quite a few companies, like the major consulting companies and the big four who were producing reports, but the reports were aggregated, so the data was aggregated.

So you didn't get a lot of granularity in terms of what organisations are doing well and what organisations weren't.

So we set up the Boardroom Diversity Index in 2010, and, through a laborious process, started to track and measure the number of women on boards across a whole range of sectors.

ASX200 and beyond

We don't just focus on the ASX200. There's currently 1560 directors on the ASX200. How many people live in this country? There's university boards, there's superannuation, there's government, there are so many other sectors. There's the startup sector, the ASX space, there are subsidiaries, trusts, foundations, there are so many different areas where people can lend their expertise and talents and make an equal contribution.

So we focused on broadening it out beyond the ASX. And interestingly, since we started in sport and other things, many sectors have achieved 40%, except the ASX and possibly private boards, because private boards, of course, are very hard to measure. And by 2020 - we did it for 10 years and measured 1385 boards - 702 had reached or exceeded the 40% target. So that's a little more than half.

The ones that are really bad are the ASX200+. That's really where everybody's attention needs to focus.

There's a lot of indices published by leading organisations around the ASX200. Why don't you challenge yourself, guys, to do something difficult? Because where it's harder is in the ASX200+.  The ASX200 is going to get to 40%, we could quota that tomorrow and it wouldn't be a problem. Beyond that is where you have difficulties.

In 2022 a snapshot of ASX200 companies showed they’re at 36%. That's a pretty good number. They're not far off 40%.

And on the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) - which we of course fought very hard to bring in under the Gillard government, which gave us teeth in terms of gender reporting - 34% of board members of the reporting organisations are female, but that picks up any organisation with more than 100 people working for it and a lot of private sector boards. So that's where you start to get some of this movement.

The upshot is there's still work to be done to achieve 40% gender balance, and we've since added cultural diversity within board and leadership roles - just as we sought to shine a light on the fact that women were not on the radar of those who were doing the looking, back in 2006.

What we were trying to do was to say to companies: “Turn off the spotlight and turn on the floodlight. Because if you turn off the spotlight where you only see people you know, people that you know who others know, and you actually turn on the floodlight, you can see people who can lay equal claim to any role sitting at the edge of that circle.”

And that's what WOB did.

Shining a light

What WOB was really successful in doing was shining a light on all of those people sitting at the edge of that circle, who didn't know enough people to get on the radar of those who were doing the appointments, but who actually could add enormous value to those boards.

We have a statue that was produced by an artist for our 10th birthday. And she said at the time, she said, “describe WOB to me." And of course, I started talking about WOB. She said, no “I'm an artist. I'm a simple soul. Tell me." I said fine. “The woman you are, the woman you were. The woman you will become. Existing and working within a circle of a reciprocity. You have a hand up and a hand down."

And that has always been a core tenet of what we do. And so I've always loved that sculpture because it's always been a lovely visual representation of how WOB works.

We seek to impact, influence and inspire women to do what they do best. And we don't seek to own or control, but we walk alongside.

Claire Braund, 2022