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Aussie companies becoming pro-women!

Peter Switzer
20 September 2016

By Peter Switzer

Australian companies are getting in touch with their feminine side, with a surge in women on boards. I wouldn’t know this if the SMH had not published a provocative story on two companies, which were ‘woman-less’ on their boards and I hadn’t fallen into the trap of looking for bad news.

Like most of us, I hate the way I can fall for that old, unproductive ‘news’ stunt.

As most of you know, I prefer to believe that we can respond to positive stories and I think the numbers say it all with this one. 

Looking at the percentage of female directors on ASX 200 companies, we see that in 2009 it was roughly 8%. However, now the number has spiked to over 22% and is on track to be 30% by 2018.

The Australian Institute of Company Directors, the peak body for companies, has set this goal. If the 30% target is met in nine years, it looks like a good achievement. And that’s what modeling by Mercer is telling us.

Clearly, the low level of representation of women in the past showed how stupid boards were being all-male, and also revealed how sexist companies were and how women were not given an even chance to get these plum but responsible jobs.

Given this, there is no reason why we have to get to a 50:50 situation with men versus women on boards. It could easily end up being 40:60, with women outnumbering men, if the respective qualifications of the candidates for our top companies just happen to produce better potential directors, who happen to be women.

You have to remember that public companies are there to satisfy customers, produce income for the shareholders, help super funds create income for Australian retirements and help create jobs. We can’t be excessively sexist in the other direction for sexist reasons.

The best candidates have to be selected on merit, which of course means blokes who got directorships because of the old schoolboy network need to be replaced by better quality people. And because of past bias, if two candidates are of equal merit, then the woman should get the nod.

This is the job of the chairman going forward, as there has been silly sexism in the past and I don’t doubt it still prevails.

However, one of the best stories I’ve seen in recent times involved sexism that many sexist-detecting media outlets went along for the ride with because it was a negative story.

It involved the appointment of Deborah Thomas as CEO of Ardent Leisure, which owns Dreamworld, Kingpin Bowling, Hypoxi, Good Health Clubs, Main Event Entertainment and more.

When Deborah — a former model and editor of the likes of Cleo and The Australian Women’s Weekly — was given the top job, there were headlines such as: “Women’s Weekly’s Deborah Thomas no Dreamworld appointment…”. This was in the SMH!

The market was sexist too, dumping the stock and the share price fell 28% to $1.97.

Then in February 2016, the AFR went for: “Ardent Leisure on shaky ground under Deborah Thomas.”

On this day, when her first company report was released, the share price fell to $1.75.

Then in August this year, Deborah came out with a better-than-expected result and the share price has told the story, with it now at $2.66!

When I asked her how she reacted to the market and media she copped when she got the top job, she was pretty gracious about it — more so than I would have been! However, she did ponder why an appointment of a woman (who obviously understands what Australian women are like) to a company such as Ardent Leisure, was so negatively received. When you know who controls the family spend on the likes of holidays, bowling days out, etc., it actually seemed like a sensible (while outside the square) appointment.

I guess the share price does paint a picture that Thomas can feel pretty vindicated about.

Anyone who punted on a woman at Ardent in February 2016 could have made 52%, which is a nice reward for non-sexist investors.

Go girls!

P.S. For those who need to know, the two companies above without a woman on their board are Reliance Worldwide (a plumbing company) and Flight Centre - but its woman-less status is said to be only temporary. Apparently, 20 companies still don’t have a woman on their boards!

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