The gender agenda goes to Canberra

Boards still talk about the need to appoint female directors on merit, a discussion that doesn’t occur when appointing male directors.
This article first appeared in the Financial Review and was written by Sally Patten, BOSS editor on Feb 19, 2021 – 12.00am.

In late January Sam Mostyn, director of property behemoth Mirvac and roads operator Transurban, was revealed as Australia’s most influential director by data company OpenDirector.

The nomination was based on the market capitalisation of companies whose directors share a board table with Mostyn. Fellow Transurban director Robert Whitfield – cited the country’s most powerful director – is a director of Commonwealth Bank and GPT, while Terry Bowen sits on the BHP board. Fellow Mirvac director Peter Nash is a director of Westpac and ASX.

But Mostyn has no interest in the accolade.

“I don’t feel like the country’s most influential director by any stretch,” she says. “I read it with a wry smile because the methodology was a mathematical equation based on mainly the companies where my fellow directors sit.”

That said, Mostyn’s influence extends well beyond the boards of publicly listed companies. The former lawyer and human resources director is also the chairman of Citibank Australia, The Foundation for Young Australians and Ausfilm, and is a board member of Sydney Swans, The Climate Council, and the Centre for Policy Development – among others.

Along the way, Mostyn has been a trailblazer for women smashing Australia’s plethora of glass ceilings. She was the first woman appointed to the boards of Virgin Australia and Transurban (both in 2010) and the AFL.

 

We’re entrenching poverty in women who will lean on JobSeeker or other social security.

— Sam Mostyn, director

Mostyn prefers to think of director influence as coming from a position where board members can guide organisations using a broad range of experiences they have acquired and by “being curious about why someone else has a different perspective”.

Mostyn’s most recent addition to her board portfolio is Chief Executive Women (CEW), of which she was appointed chairman in November. CEW will be hoping that Mostyn can make full use of her skills and networks to ensure that pre-existing disadvantages suffered by women are not permanently entrenched by the coronavirus pandemic.

The outbreak of the deadly COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on female-dominated industries, such as hospitality and tourism, while many women have picked up more home care and home schooling obligations and many boards have fallen into old habits when it comes to making senior executive appointments.

 

“We’ve hit a very difficult time of our history, particularly in Australia, where we’ve not continued to see the opportunities and the impact that women leaders could be having all over our economy,” Mostyn says.

“[We can’t] lose sight of the fact that women have a unique and special set of circumstances because they’re in feminised industries that were impacted earlier and deeper [by COVID-19] and for a longer period of time. A lot of the very admirable targeted support for industries has gone back more to blue-collar workers, and to industry and to construction.

“We’ve relied on the fact that perhaps women can get a slightly higher JobSeeker [payment], but even so, that still hits women terribly hard. So we’re entrenching poverty in women who will lean on JobSeeker or other social security.”

And so next week she and CEW executives are off to Canberra with their pre-budget submission. They will be arguing for investment in female-dominated industries and in early-childhood education and childcare, better lifetime economic security for women and to “embed a gender lens in the budget and ensure gender balance in decision-making spaces and structures”. Mostyn recalls the dismissal of those who criticised the October federal budget on the grounds it failed to support women.

Mostyn, whose passion for gender equality stems from watching her university-educated mother give up paid work to look after four children and her army officer husband, says: “[The women] were told that no one else had complained, and that generally women benefit from anything that’s going on in the economy because we’re equal partners in this economy.”

Federal budget aside, Mostyn argues that individual companies could promote flexible working by directing savings from lower property costs, as companies need less office space, to improving the work-related infrastructure in people’s homes and building local work hubs.

As for gender equality in the upper echelons of corporate Australia, Mostyn is dismayed that in some ways little has changed.

“I listen to conversations around the director community that still start with: ‘Yes, we’d like to [appoint a women] but we can’t compromise on merit.’ It’s a conversation I never hear when we’re recruiting for men,” Mostyn says.

Still, she is buoyed by the attention that investors are increasingly giving to environmental, social and governance issues. Investor interest in companies’ carbon footprint has skyrocketed over the past 12 months, she says, and is leading to capital shifts.

The social element has taken a back seat to climate, but Mostyn notes that many ASX 200 CEOs and chairmen have been contacted by investors about their commitment to having at least 40 per cent male and female directors by 2030. Recent harassment scandals, which have led to the departure of directors and senior executives, have also demonstrated the financial risks of poor governance.

Mostyn is also hopeful that the directors’ club is slowly being broken down.

She concedes “elements” of the club still exist. “It is the case that when people are sitting around thinking about who should join us, when you introduce names that no one’s heard of, it is a much harder task to convince that group of people that this person’s got what we need,” she says. “What we all typically do is fall back on our unconscious biases and say: ‘I don’t know them. I haven’t heard of them. Are we sure?’”

But as diversity increases, this should become less of a problem over time: “I think I’ve seen more of that [introducing new directors] happening. [People are] really advocating for new directors to come through, or new people to be considered, but it’s a bigger effort.”

View article on The Australian Financial Review >


Sam Mostyn joins AIDN’s webinar for a celebration of women’s achievements for International Women’s Day on Tuesday, 9th March at 10am AEST. Register now to hear how our inspiring panelists #ChooseToChallenge and seek out and celebrate women’s achievements.

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