THE Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, has advocated the introduction of quotas to ensure more women are appointed as directors on company boards.
In comments that could reignite claims she has crossed the line between her vice-regal role and politics, Ms Bryce said she believed affirmative action might be the only way to break the stranglehold of the ''old boys' network'' on Australian business.
''I believe the old boys' network is a powerful one,'' she said. ''No one gives up power and privilege willingly, do they?''
The shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, last night called for a 30 per cent quota for women on boards if companies fail to fix the problem. The quotas are controversial in corporate Australia, which has been seeking to boost the number of women executives through mentoring programs, but Mr Hockey told ABC's Q&A program that over the past decade there had been little change.
On the same program, the Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis, said the government would hold a survey in 18 months to gauge if the number of women on boards had increased and would take action if needed. She said quotas were a last resort but the government was leaving this option on the table.
Speaking on the eve of International Women's Day, the Governor-General - for decades a leading light in the women's movement - said that while women had made huge progress since she became aware of widespread discrimination as a young barrister in the 1960s, progress had slowed, particularly at the highest levels of business.
Last year women made up just 3 per cent of chief executives of the top 200 companies on the Australian Stock Exchange, and 8.4 per cent of board members.
''I think there's a very clear recognition and understanding that the progress of women in business at the very highest decision-making levels is too slow,'' Ms Bryce said.
''This is a discussion that's going on in every country around the world, actually.
''And a very interesting debate that surrounds it is about whether affirmative action should be taken to ensure … to take some positive steps to see that women are better represented on boards and at the highest decision-making levels.
''I support affirmative action. I support special measures when you need it.''
Asked what she meant by special measures, Ms Bryce said: ''One of the things that is being discussed in Australia now, and this has been going on the past couple of years, is whether or not there should be quotas for the representation of women on boards, and there are women who support that and there are others who don't. I believe in certain circumstances quotas are a valid measure.''
She said such a proposal ''sounds like a very radical notion, but it's not''.
Later in the interview, the Governor-General amended her definition of what should be done to reduce male domination of top business positions to ''setting goals and targets''.
''The Australian way of affirmative action is setting goals and recognising discrimination and lack of opportunity and deciding to take action and setting some goals and targets. I guess I prefer that language to talking about quotas,'' she said.
with Kirsty Needham