It was always going to be risky (much like this article!). As I understood it, Graeme Samuel came out last week and said one of the potential downsides of opening the flood gates to women directors was that too few, and potentially overrated, were occupying too many top corporate board positions; spreading themselves too thinly and compromising their ability to be effective. As one might predict, particularly when one can write the article, be quoted in a trusted journalist’s piece and someone else provides the headline, retribution from many quarters was swift and brutal. In this knife’s edge environment and in a world of social media where everyone who writes a blog is a published author and everyone who tweets is a social commentator, the place simply went nuts.
In truth if you read the actual , his thoughts were a tad more nuanced than Eddie McGuire’s “brain fade” on the weekend but what the two men had in common was that a) neither of them were fully in the picture and the actual on female non-executive board directors do not fully support Samuel’s view of the world and Eddie McGuire did not know that Cynthia Banham was a double amputee. I believe Graeme Samuel knew what he was saying and believed it to be true. While he addressed the furore two days later and appeared to have been reminded (the hard way) how comments can be construed, I don’t think he would recant his actual viewpoint. I do believe McGuire, in contrast, is now in a world of pain as is the woman he unwittingly made fun of and would absolutely wind the clock back if only he could. That’s where the comparison stops. It’s for others to determine any appropriate response.
A (perhaps feeble) argument could be made that the sharp increase in female representation on Australian boards in the past year in the wake of the #MeToo revolution means that some of the women given opportunities now are underdone. However, I don’t ever remember anyone worrying back in the day that their male counterparts, at the beginning of their Board careers, newly-minted members of the Boy’s Club, were too green and that they would be doing a disservice to other men if they accepted their non-executive directorships.
Do I think it’s offensive for Samuel to have said “there … needs [to be] a nuclear bomb to smash down the impenetrable wall around the female club of directors”? The hypocrisy is startling in a world where “The Boy’s Club” is a hackneyed shorthand cliche on favouritism to which we’ve become habituated. And given my work in conflict resolution and peace building, I find suggestion we need to go nuclear on the “problem” horribly and unnecessarily violent; disproportionately so to the oft-cited “smash the patriarchy” which I also don’t like because it can be used to imply that men conspire to keep women down. Samuel said some of the women at the top may not be as good as their reputation suggests. That should not be made a gendered issue and that’s certainly not new! Yes. There may be a few women sitting on a few prestigious boards and if they’re seen to be hogging most of the juicy roles, it’s because women are still the vast minority on Australian boards and they can subconsciously be regarded as taking their place on the life raft at the expense of (only) other women. I call it the “limited life rafts on the boat” phenomenon.What sits behind this near obsession is flawed, irrational and competitive thinking. And let’s say some of those women cliquey. Might that be safety in (small) numbers!?
I do take Samuel’s point that celebrity or “big name” board members of any gender don’t always make the best contributors. Surely the way to ensure that too few women don’t spread themselves too thinly is simply to ensure that any new non-exec director can comfortably manage the demands of the role and that Ministers who appoint to government boards and recruitment panels considering candidates for other boards do their due diligence, have accurately assessed the likely time demands and are rigorous in determining that candidates are sufficiently engaged with the purpose of the organisation and the duties to which they would be bound, that they self- select in or out appropriately. Some organisations will always go for the high profile chair (think BeyondBlue) and sometimes it’s that clout that seriously opens doors but lesser known lights can transform organisations too.
I spoke with Nicole Livingstone, CEO AFL Women’s recently about the AFL’s strategy of phased issue of licences for AFL teams to compete in the women’s comp. We specifically spoke about the challenge of the talent pipeline and what’s considered “good for the game”. One of the short-term issues for the women’s game was depth of talent. Not enough girls and young women have historically been given the chance to play AFL at a high enough level (if at all) and many of the star athletes who’ve been coaxed across to this great game from other sports needed time to develop genuine skill at a completely different game, often necessitating a very different training regime. Some commentators feared that poor skills and big score blowouts would be injurious to the women’s game in its infancy.Without an adequate long-term funding model yet for AFL women, something we can take for granted now in the men’s game, a graduated approach was necessary.
In the corporate world we’re expected to get serious about succession plans and a good CEO has only done their job well if they pay mind to this as part of their legacy. We want good bench strength to buffer us against sudden defections of top staff and talent in reserve if metaphorically two players get knocked out in the third quarter (think maternity leave or long-term illness). I the strategy with the introduction of AFL women. I want us to build an enduring and exciting game, with massive television rights paid to help fund wages for dedicated athletes. But this past weekend we saw score blowouts in both the men’s and women’s games. The fact that the blowout in the women’s game was in the Grand Final made it slightly more interesting perhaps. What’s also noteworthy as an analogous reminder is just how much the skill level in the women’s game has lifted in just one season with more money, better coaches, training environments and professional sport science input. But let me be clear, we have accelerating the progress of women as board appointees.
Smart, talented, skilled and collaborative women have been sitting on the bench for far too long waiting to be selected. Board prowess, just like any form of leadership is learnt on the job. And while I don’t believe Graeme Samuel was being misogynistic per se in his concern about women directors over-committing and may want to ensure we set them up to succeed, until and if we have the same conversations about men or have the same expectations of them to step aside for others, lest they be perceived as selfish, greedy or privileged, let’s not demand that of women.
What I would ask of women is that we push for progression without aggression, that we don’t immediately monster anyone who holds a different view to our own, that in a sound-byte world we read the article, not just the headline but that we do call out the double standard when we see it. Asking us to know our limitations and honour our accountability by not over committing should be the obligation of any board member who truly cares about the higher purpose of the organisation they serve, and not their own personal resumé capital.