22 September 2020

old boardroomPale, male and stale – it’s certainly stereotypical, but it’s a saying that still holds water when it comes to Australian boards, according to new research from the University of South Australia.

Assessing the influence of gender diversity on Australian boards, researchers found that a persistent boys’ club mentality is impairing decision-making at the top, particularly in relation to corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.

Lead researcher, UniSA’s Dr Kathy Rao, says that many Australian boards suffer from a lack of gender diversity and a male pack mentality causes biased and unbalanced decisions.

“Women bring a unique set of values, perspectives and capabilities to top-level decision-making which can help boards address CSR issues in a more effective manner,” Dr Rao says.

“But old-school attitudes tend to hold them back, partly because they don’t have a critical mass to push new ideas over the line, but also because there are a few powerful older male directors who are so focussed on profit that they disregard CSR as ‘soft’ when it is raised by female directors.

“The challenge is, however, that CSR is incredibly important for ethical and sustainable business, so companies are essentially shooting themselves in the foot if they purposely, or inadvertently, avoid CSR strategies.”

Despite an increasing focus on CSR and gender diversity in Australia and around the world – including a push for gender diversity targets and disclosures from key bodies such as ASIC, ASX and AICD – gender imbalances are compounded by ‘like-attracting-like’ recruitment practices.

Co-researcher, and Director of the UniSA Yunus Social Business Centre, Professor Carol Tilt, says unconscious bias is a massive issue for Australian boards.

“Board members’ lack of awareness of their own bias is perhaps the single most damaging factor for effective leadership,” Prof Tilt says.

“Australian companies need to be more proactive in offering training and incentives for more women to become actively involved in firm governance – and, to achieve this without regulatory pressures or token appointments simply to meet gender targets.

“Unfortunately, when boards look for new members, they’re often reluctant to appoint female members or candidates who have different experiences to their own, defeating the capacity to recruit a diversity of views.

“Such a blinkered approach to governance is highly risky, and while members may not know they’re operating in such a way, a lack of gender diversity almost guarantees this outcome.

“As you can appreciate, influence is king on boards; if you don’t have it, you can’t make much of an impact.”


Media contact:  Annabel Mansfield P: +61 8 8302 0351 M: +61 417 717 504
E: Annabel.Mansfield@unisa.edu.au
Dr Kathy Rao P: +61 8 8302 7085  E: Kathy.Rao@unisa.edu.au
Professor Carol Tilt P: +61 8 8302 7048 E: Carol.Tilt@unisa.edu.au

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