Record surge in number of women on boards

CORPORATE Australia has set a record for the number of women directors joining big company boards, but they remain greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts.

Figures compiled by the Australian Institute of Company Directors show that a record number of 65 women joined the boards of ASX200 companies during last year - six more than 2010.

Women now make up an all-time-high of 13.5 per cent of ASX200 directorships - a figure that, while still low, is a big rise on the previous year's 8.4 per cent.

The number of women on ASX200 boards now stands at 140, with those women holding a collective 199 board positions.

The rise in women on corporate boards comes after new Australian Securities Exchange diversity guidelines, which kick in this financial year and will force companies to disclose the number of women on staff, in senior management and on the board.

It also follows warnings from the federal government that gender quotas could be considered if corporate Australia did not improve the diversity of big company boards.

The institute's chief executive, John Colvin, said the size of the move - 29 per cent of ASX200 appointments last year were women, compared with 25 per cent the year before - had surprised him. This was especially so as the pipeline of senior female executives remained low, at 8 per cent.

''You are talking about 30 per cent of all new board appointments being female and I think that is an extraordinary change in the way this has worked,'' he said.

''The directors themselves have got behind it, changing the culture of their own boards and that sends a message not just in their own companies, but I think Australia wide. They haven't been given the credit they deserve.''

The Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, said the challenge now was making sure the numbers continued to rise. ''The US has been sitting at 15 per cent for the last decade,'' she said. ''The real issue here is, will we just plateau at 14 per cent?''

The momentum for change has been pushed along by the influential company director Jillian Segal, who urged the federal government to clearly link its procurement policies with active diversity targets. She criticised the current situation, where although companies receiving government contracts had to be in ''good standing'' with the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workforce Agency, there was no target.