Near Equity for Female Trustees

Women hold 43 percent of the seats on the governing boards and councils of Australian universities -- far more than in the U.S.

November 6, 2013

The governing bodies of Australian universities have an average of 43 percent female representation, compared to just 16.6 percent in the country's 200 companies, new analysis by The Australian newspaper reveals.

A 2010-11 survey of American university boards by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges showed that men outnumbered women by more than two to one on both private college boards (69.8 percent to 30.2 percent) and public boards (71.6 percent to 28.4 percent).

Four Australian universities stand out with 50 percent or more women on their councils, led by RMIT with 66 per cent and Deakin at 56 per cent. Both also have female vice chancellors (the Australian equivalent of president or chancellor). Bond University and the University of South Australia have 50 percent women on their councils.

While nine of 38 universities have female chancellors (a mostly ceremonial position), and seven have female vice chancellors, 15 universities had one-third or less women on their governing bodies. Curtin was the worst-performing university with 21.4 percent representation, followed by Sydney (23.8 per cent).

Ziggy Switkowski, chancellor of RMIT and a professional director on numerous corporate boards, said the gender imbalance -- with just one-third men on the council -- was a product of timing, not a strategic endeavor.

"There has been a clear and long-term strategy in place to get equal representation on the council," he said. "We are looking at 50-50. It's just a timing issue at the moment." However, "diversity and gender" were not the most important issues when formulating a board or council, he said.

"The biggest priority is that you have the right skills and abilities represented around the table; people with the right temperament to work around complex issues and with each other. You have to attract people who love the area of endeavor, whether it's at a university or in business."

Jane den Hollander, vice chancellor at nearby Deakin University, said her institution also held parity of representation as a clearly held mission.

"Are women smarter or less smart? We pick people based on their record of achievement and experience," den Hollander said. "But it changes the tone because women have different views of the world than men.

"The question is why wouldn't you have equal numbers of women on your council rather than why would you."

Verity Firth, a former minister for women in NSW and aspiring member of the University of Sydney senate, said all universities, including her alma mater, held a public responsibility to show best practice.

"When you are a sandstone institution and one of the best universities in Australia, and possibly the world, you have to lead by example. Until women are seen in the highest and best roles, you won't start seeing a change in the status quo," she said, noting that, since 1991, three of Sydney's four chancellors -- including incumbent Belinda Hutchinson -- have been women.

However, Melbourne University's provost, Margaret Sheil, said there was only so much institutions could control in aspiring to gender parity.

"Most universities actively seek out diversity and women is one area of that. But it's complicated by the fact the state influences the make-up of councils and senates.

"You can go from a situation of strong female representation to a much-reduced one because of an election (for a place) or a ministerial appointment," Melbourne's University's Sheil said. "The important thing is how universities track over time with the appointments we can control."

Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia, a membership group, said universities had been "quietly getting on with doing what the private sector has been bleating about for years -- unheralded."

"But is it enough? Ultimately, the key is ensuring there is sufficient diversity to ensure the collective skills, knowledge, experience and perspective of the governing body are the right match for driving the strategic direction of the organization and governing with integrity. Diversity for diversity's sake is not where any governing body wants to go."

Without exception, everyone HES spoke to pointed to the government's cabinet and the track record of ASX 200 companies as wrongheaded.

"I assume the government's appointment of just one woman to cabinet was an oversight at the beginning and they will fix it," Professor den Hollander said.

"And corporate Australia could do better. Women are no better or worse at these jobs but they do bring a different perspective that is probably very useful."

And while Switkowski described universities as "probably more female-friendly than most businesses" and "inherently very different from the harder-edged financially focused corporate boards on which I sit," he noted RMIT was comparable to a large Australian company.

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