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Directors want more diversity, less red-tape

Directors want more diversity, less red-tape

A survey of board directors by Mallesons Stephen Jaques has found that more than half believe there is a lack of diversity on Australian boards.Mallesons released the results of its Directions…

A survey of board directors by Mallesons Stephen Jaques has found that more than half believe there is a lack of diversity on Australian boards.

Mallesons released the results of its Directions 2011 report at its Sydney office last night (15 February), following the firm's survey of 125 directors from 300 organisations in December on a range of issues including regulation and compliance, diversity and M&A activity.

According to the report, 55 per cent of respondents believe there is a lack of diversity on corporate boards, with 39 per cent stating their own company lacked diversity.

But despite acknowledging the lack of diversity on Australian boards - with less than 10 per cent of females on the board of ASX 200 companies in 2010 - 62 per cent of survey respondents indicated that they would not support additional measures, such as quotas, beyond existing regulations from the ASX to improve board diversity.

"The topic of quotas is a really interesting issue, and I don't think Australia has a culture of using quotas," Mallesons partner Meredith Paynter told Lawyers Weekly.

"I am not a proponent of quotas for boards, but I am open to the notion of the use of quotas in organisations at less senior levels to facilitate the promotion of people with diverse backgrounds."

The report included comparative analysis that showed countries with a quota system, such as Norway, had nearly 40 per cent of females on corporate boards.

Three quarters of respondents to the Mallesons survey indicated their board had made recent board appointments to increase diversity.

Directors also reported growing levels of concern about the increasing regulatory burdens placed upon them, as well as the threat of personal liability arising from alleged defective disclosure.

Some anonymous comments from directors published in the report referred to "ridiculous and meaningless governance and reporting requirements" and "uninformed global regulatory change".

Paynter believes that far from indicating a view that directors are "scared of or not willing to engage in reform", such comments reveal that some members of the business community believe they were not properly consulted on recent compliance and disclosure requirements.

"There was a view from respondents that there was far too much emphasis on black letter law, and serious personal implications for breaches, rather than trying to achieve an effective and balanced solution to shortcomings in our system and how to apply them," she said.

The survey also revealed that 34 per cent of respondents were in an organisation that had paid attention to class action issues in 2010 and that 42 per cent of respondents considered the global financial crisis had made boards risk averse in pursuing M&A activity. Nearly two thirds of respondents (64 per cent) agreed or strongly agreed with the notion that the current AGM format should be revised.

Directors reported that they spend on average five to 20 hours per month on board commitments, with one third of those surveyed stating that this increases to more than 30 hours per month in times of "exceptional circumstances".

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