26 September 2023

Double trouble: The gender double standard in the merit debate

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Emma Alberici* says blaming women for their lack of promotion assumes a level playing field in the contests for the country’s top jobs.

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By the time Kevin McCann was 29 years old he’d already made partner at his law firm, Allen, Allen & Hemsley.

He doesn’t recall anyone sniping when, at 36, he was asked to join the board of Pioneer Concrete.

No-one ever questioned whether he had sufficient “merit” for the role, despite never having been a CEO.

Four decades later, he admits he’s still never run anything in his life and that it’s merely his experience as a lawyer that saw him appointed to several boards, as well as chairman of some of the country’s biggest companies, including Origin Energy, Healthscope and Macquarie Group.

McCann’s early career mirrors that of former AMP Chair Catherine Brenner, who, in the wake of revelations at the Royal Commission into the financial services sector, has been roundly criticised as having lacked the corporate experience necessary to sit at the head of the boardroom table.

She too was a lawyer but, unlike McCann, she was also previously the managing director of an investment bank.

He detects sexism in the commentary about the female directors who’ve resigned from the AMP Board.

“The disparaging remarks made about their personal attributes, the positions held by their partners, attitudes to personal grooming, the age of those women — that was all quite unnecessary,” he says.

“No-one ever calls men out the way some of the female directors were treated.”

The double standard merit mania

If their gender did become the subject of comment, perhaps it would have been passing strange that there have only ever been men at the helm of Australia’s biggest retailers Coles and Myer.

Women drive between 70 and 80 per cent of all consumer spending decisions.

They not only buy things for themselves but, as primary caregivers in virtually every society in the world, women buy on behalf of others too.

It’s time-strapped modern women who, juggling caring, cleaning and career, have almost single-handedly revolutionised the shopping experience.

Buying online gives the consumer the choice of purchasing all manner of things at any time of the day or night from anywhere in the world.

Don’t bother explaining that to Myer’s Executive Chairman, Garry Hounsell.

The retired accountant recently admitted he’d never bought anything without sidling up to a cash register.

And remember John Fletcher?

He was the CEO under whose stewardship Coles Myer fell apart.

Mr Fletcher ran Brambles for 27 years before being appointed to head Coles Myer.

At his first press conference in 2001, he boasted of having not stepped foot in a supermarket in 25 years.

Come to think of it, why did no-one mention former Woolworths chief Roger Corbett’s spouse, his beauty regimen, IQ or age when, as Fairfax Chairman, he presided over the collapse of its newspapers’ classified advertising businesses?

Despite only ever having read or appeared in the newspapers he was about to preside over, no one suggested he was only given his Fairfax title because he was a man.

Why do we need more lady leaders?

Since 1985, more women (55 per cent) than men have been graduating from Australian universities, but only a fraction of those women are being appointed to the key roles.

Groups like the Male Champions of Change (MCC) and Chief Executive Women were formed to hasten the march of Australian women into leadership positions.

Without affirmative action, the World Economic Forum says advanced countries won’t see gender parity for another 100 years at least.

There is no level playing field

There are now more men called Andrew running ASX 200 companies than there are women.

For some women, that’s just a quirk of fate.

They’re also the women who bristle at the mere mention of the MCC name, insisting their entire raison d’etre is deeply patronising because talented women don’t need men to champion their cause.

Instead, women just need to: a) work harder; b) try harder; c) be tougher; or, d) all of the above.

Blaming women for their lack of promotion assumes a level playing field in contests for the country’s top jobs.

The MCC and, since last month, also the ASX don’t assume that.

They assert that unconscious bias — the prejudices we have but are unaware of — plays a significant role in denying women a place at the heart of public and private sector decision-making in Australia.

In his address to the Affinity IFTAR dinner at NSW Parliament House last month, NSW Chief Justice, Tom Bathurst observed that “it is plain that gracing the benches of most of the courts in this country there are more judges who look like me [over 60, grey hair, white skin] than anyone else in the community.”

He added that the idea of what constitutes “merit” is debatable and highly subjective.

At its worst, he said, it is the tendency to see merit “in those who exhibit the same qualities as ourselves, and can result in a perpetuation of homogeneity in hiring or appointments”.

“Of course, success in the law should depend always on merit and nothing else,” he said.

“However, it is important to heed the words of Dame Brenda Hale.”

“The word ‘merit’ only emerges when the appointment of women and other non-standard candidates is being discussed.”

Excuses, excuses

With academic research also dismissing the notion that women are less ambitious than men, the Australian Institute of Company Directors and the ASX have introduced a 30 per cent target for the number of women they want to see represented on the top 200 boards by 2018.

Since the target was set in 2015, the pace of change has been swift.

From 8 per cent of all board positions three years ago, women now make up 27.5 per cent of ASX 200 board positions.

AustralianSuper, one of the country’s biggest investors, has led the campaign for female representation on boards.

AustralianSuper CEO, Ian Silk says ASX 200 companies who say they can’t find qualified women to join their boards “aren’t looking hard enough”.

Investment funds have also been pushing a diversity agenda in the UK, where the Government is supporting a 30 per cent female target for board members of all companies listed on the FTSE-350 stock index by 2020.

A survey last week questioning British chairmen and chief executives over the relatively low number of women serving on their boards (25 per cent) saw a list compiled of the 10 worst excuses.

It included such gems as “all the good women are taken” and women aren’t sufficiently qualified to sit on a board where “extremely complex” issues are being discussed.

* Emma Alberici is the ABC’s Chief Economics Correspondent. She tweets at @albericie.

This article first appeared at www.abc.net.au

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