INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY

You only have to watch kids in a sandpit to realise boys won’t give up their toys.

It’s the same at board level.

On International Women’s Day last year the federal government brought out the wooden spoon, refusing to do business with companies that “failed the gender equity test”.

Minister for the Status of Women, Kate Ellis, announced regular spot checks by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency to keep all businesses “honest”.

The result? Break out the bubbly girls! It’s a new Australian record.

Last year, 65 women joined the boards of ASX200 companies, six more than in 2010.

Women now hold 13.5 per cent of these directorships. Pathetic, really.

Any mother knows that to control recalcitrant children you need to wield a big stick (figuratively, not literally).

It’s time to introduce mandatory quotas for women on boards.

Take the European example.

One year ago, the EU’s Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding asked for a voluntary increase in women’s presence on corporate boards.

Only 24 companies signed the pledge to ensure 30 per cent representation by 2015.

This is despite women making up 60 per cent of university graduates.

It’s not just about equality.

A recent study shows firms whose boards have a balanced gender split make a 56 per cent higher operating profit than their all-male equivalents.

“Women ask more questions, are less likely to take decisions with high short-term risks, and have better feelers for changes in consumer demand,” Ms. Reding contends.

Consequently, the Justice Commission is considering bringing in mandatory quotas for the EU later this year, aligning with Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.

France is a stellar success story, doubling the number of women on boards from 12 to 24 per cent within a year.

Of course, quotas aren’t the only answer.

We need more mentoring of middle managers, childcare support from government, an equal distribution of labour in the household, and a reduction in the 17 per cent gender pay gap.

Crikey publisher Amanda Gome writes of the need for more entrepreneurial women, acting as role models.

“The thinking is that women are more likely to promote other females onto boards and in the workplace, ensure women are paid more fairly, and be more sympathetic to flexible conditions,” she writes.

Often though, this doesn’t transpire.

Workers at Westpac complain that CEO Gail Kelly only accepts one type of work/life balance – that which involves a full-time nanny.

Ms. Kelly is no fan of quotas: “I personally think mandated positions can have unforeseen consequences and unintended and poor outcomes.”

She’s referring to the risk to shareholders if appointments aren’t made on merit.

In a perfect world, they should be.

But in the real world, board positions are granted as gifts to colleagues or golf buddies who are owed a favour.

There are enough experienced women in middle and senior management to provide a rich pool from which to choose.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard says any move to impose mandatory quotas would be a “last option”, while Opposition Leader Tony Abbott rejects the idea out of hand.

But why should women wait?

My message this International Women’s Day is this: It’s time to stop playing nice in the sandpit of life.