The role of directors in promoting workplace gender equality and their obligations under Victoria’s new Gender Equality Act 2020 and the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 were discussed in a lively AICD virtual breakfast forum.

    Victoria is leading the way in holding leaders to account for action on gender equality, with new legislation requiring public sector organisations, local councils and universities to submit a gender quality audit by 1 December. 

    Dr Niki Vincent MAICD, who was appointed Victoria's first Public Sector Gender Equality Commissioner in September 2020, told the forum that more than 300 organisations with 380,000 staff would be covered by the legislation.

    “This requires the organisations to publish their data on gender equality/inequality and what they are committed to doing in their gender equality plan,” Vincent said. “The Act provides transparent data and accountability on a scale never seen before in Australia.”

    Vincent said that as commissioner, she has powers to enforce compliance and warned directors they face a workplace risk if they fail to meet their obligations. “Think about the ways your organisation is designed to benefit men and try to redesign it so it benefits women,” Vincent said.

    The virtual event was chaired by Tal Karp GAICD, a former Matildas Olympian who serves on the boards of Victoria Legal Aid and the Australian Grand Prix Corporation and is a Gender Equality Ambassador for the Victorian Government’s Office for Women in Sport and Recreation.

    The panel included Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) Mary Wooldridge GAICD, chief executive officer of Master Builders Victoria, Rebecca Casson MAICD, David Middleton GAICD, who chairs the Greater Western Water Board, and James Fazzino, chair of Osteon Medical and Manufacturing Australia and a member of the Champions of Change Coalition.

    Federal legislation

    Wooldridge reflected on what directors could draw from lessons learned under Commonwealth workplace gender equality legislation, the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012, which she said was under review and accepting submissions.

    Under the Act, all non-public sector employers with 100 or more employees are required to report annually to WGEA and companies must inform employees and shareholders that the report has been lodged. WGEA runs an “Employer of Choice for Gender Equality” recognition program which requires reporting on leadership, strategy and accountability and developing a gender-balanced workforce, including mainstreaming flexible working. 

    Wooldridge said organisations committed to change should consider the composition of their leadership team and their data on the gender pay gap. She said the current gender pay gap of 14.2 per cent considered baseline salaries, whereas the gap in full remuneration, including bonuses, was more than 20 per cent.

    “Having gender equality on the board agenda makes a difference. Targets work,” said Wooldridge, noting Chief Executive Women president Sam Mostyn’s call on 8 September for more companies to adopt gender diversity targets.  (Some 57 per cent of the top 300 companies have voluntarily adopted targets, according to Mostyn.)

    The AICD announced in August that there are no longer any all-male boards on the ASX200, a positive change from 2015, when the AICD began its quarterly reporting and when there were 28 all-male boards. The latest percentage of women on ASX200 boards is 33.7 per cent and the AICD supports a 40:40:20 model of gender balance in which boards aim for at least 40 per cent of director seats to be held by both men and women on a consistent basis, with flexibility over the remaining 20 per cent of seats.

    The latest Chief Executive Women Census also calls for management to set targets to boost senior female leadership ranks, especially in line roles to the role of CEO, and for boards to make gender diversity targets part of their strategy and planning. The report shows women still hold only 26 per cent of executive leadership roles in the ASX300. Despite increased pressure from investors on gender equality, women are still under-represented in CEO and CFO roles. There are only 18 women CEOs in the ASX300 and of the 23 CEO appointments in 2020-21, only 1 woman was appointed.

    Boards and targets

    Fazzino told the Melbourne event that gender equality should be a core board strategy and he agreed that boards should set specific targets. He added that boards should discuss “every couple of board meetings” the systemic factors leading to inequality.

    “Boards should ask what’s happening in the talent system and how can we put more women in line roles and profit and loss roles,” Fazzino said. “The numbers don’t lie. It’s important that you change the system, not the people in it.”

    As for managing sexual harassment, Fazzino said it was important to treat it as an issue of health and safety, rather than a grievance issue, and to list the issue as a regular part of the board agenda.

    “Boards have to be prepared to name and shame and to put the person who has been harassed at the centre of everything,” Fazzino said. The key metric, he said, was if the woman remains in the organisation after sexual harassment allegations are raised.

    Casson, the first female leader of Master Builders Victoria’s 146-year history, called on directors to be “innovative” in their push for gender equality and to drive an increase in women in their sectors by recruiting outside their sectors. She said it was unfortunate that some organisations “simply will not change until legislation applies to them”.

    The strength of the relationship of chair and CEO is “absolutely vital”, she said, adding it was important to put effort and time into strengthening that relationship.

    “This relationship sets the tone for the entire organisation. Knowing your chair has got your back is key,” Casson said. She said a key challenge for executives was calling out behaviour.

    Fazzino and Middleton agreed, with Fazzino calling on executives and directors to recognise elements of everyday sexism and call them out “in the moment”.

    "The culture of everyday sexism allows sexual harassment to escalate,” Fazzino said.

    Middleton said boards should ensure that action on gender equality is part of executives’ key performance indicators. He urged directors to join him by taking “The Panel Pledge”, a commitment to participate in a panel or forum only if there is a gender balance.

    Lessons for directors

    Asked to nominate a practical thing for directors to take away from the discussion, the panellists said the following:

    “Focus on changing the system - not the people in the system." James Fazzino

    “Ensure actions speak louder than words. Directors have a significant influence and can take actions which are needed for us to reach a more equitable system.” Rebecca Casson

    “Get involved in your general equality action plan and make sure gender equality is part of your executives’ key performance indicators.” David Middleton

    “Gender equality is good for business.” Mary Woolridge

    “Get gender inequality onto your board agenda and make it a business as usual director responsibility.” Niki Vincent

    “We need to do more than talk a big game, there are no quick fixes or easy wins. As directors, if it (gender equality) is going to be business as usual, we need to look at how our organisations and boards operate and we have to step back and take a hard look at ourselves.” Tal Karp

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