Senior members of the legal profession have argued that female board members resigning from AMP, in the wake of revelations at the banking royal commission, should not discourage those who aspire to hold positions on boards.
Speaking yesterday at a breakfast seminar co-hosted by SmartWomen Connect and Maddocks, former Brookfield Property Partners senior vice president and general counsel Claire Bibby, Urbis chairman Lisa Chung and Maddocks consultant Wayne Jarman argued that women lawyers should still put themselves forward, despite the parallels some in media and the community have drawn between gender quotas and board misconduct following the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.
SmartWomen Connect founder Fiona Craig said the Australian Institute of Company Directors is aiming to reach 30 per cent female representation on ASX 200 boards by 2020, and while she noted that women currently make up 27.5 per cent of such positions, this still means that over 70 per cent of ASX 200 board seats are filled by men.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” she said, ceding the AMP scandal could potentially make things worse.
“What we don’t want to see happen is women stepping back because of the negative press,” she said.
“Sadly, I see in my work that if women feel they are going to be criticised, they won’t put themselves forward as much.”
Criticism of the female board members of AMP who resigned in the wake of royal commission findings, particularly former chairman Catherine Brenner, was “terribly biased”, the panel said.
“We wouldn’t have questions [about competency] like this had they been male,” Ms Bibby argued.
Ms Chung offered a similar sentiment, saying “gender bias is alive and well”.
“The unfortunate thing is that this [scandal] has created an environment whereby misogynists living under a rock have come out and said, “see, I told you so”,” she said.
However women shouldn’t be dissuaded, she proclaimed, noting that sensible people across the boards have kept their heads.
“We can bring the conversation back to a sensible place and not be distracted by silly messaging [about gender quotas],” she said.
Further discussing the treatment of the former AMP board members, and how it might be a disincentive to women aspiring to be on boards, Ms Chung recounted the “rigorous” process Ms Brenner would have gone through to secure the chairmanship and flagged her qualifications. She then compared that to the dredging up of 15-year-old comments she made to Vogue magazine about her beauty regimen.
“She was the chairman for less than two years, all the stuff [spoken about in the royal commission hearing] happened in 2015 — what about all the men who came before her?”, she posed.
“It’s all been dumped on her. I’m not saying she doesn’t share in the responsibility, but overall, it’s been so unbalanced.”
Should professional women coming through the ranks wish to join board ranks, however, they must do so with open eyes, be aware of their obligations, and not simply join a board out of desperation, the panel agreed.
“You can’t just rely on anecdotal knowledge from others, you have to go out and do your own due diligence on the company,” Ms Bibby explained.
“I’m on a Catholic Church board [Marist180] and I’m not Catholic, and I took a long time to do my research on the board and the organisation before I joined.”
“Not only does [doing your due diligence] help lift your reputation, but it does damage to your reputation when things don’t work out,” she warned.