First published by the Australian Financial Review on 08 April 2013.

By: Patrick Durkin

A study that finds 79 of the ASX 300 miners have no women on their board has sparked a blame game from women who attribute the problem to the “Perth old boys’ network” and chairmen who say there is a shortage of qualified candidates.

Women comprise just 15 per cent of top 200 directors but research by leading shareholder advisory firm CGI Glass Lewis identified a chronic shortage of women candidates in Perth.

A range of directors and chief executives from mid-tier mining companies including Galaxy Resources, Gryphon Minerals, Integra Mining and Sundance Resources said talented women with technical expertise were quickly “snatched up by the big players”.

“The problem in the west is that all the appropriate candidates already sit on five or six other bloody boards,” one mining executive said.

The sheer number of board meetings – particularly for mid-tier mining companies – often make it unworkable to have a candidate from outside
Western Australia, they said.

But the CGI report says: “The reality of non-executive director roles is that it is an old boys’ network, particularly here in Perth.”

Its authors Bridget Murphy and Aaron Bertinetti said: “The insular Western Australian director pool was a repeated theme in many of our discussions and although some (certainly not all) had a desire to branch out beyond that group, very few of the companies had actively done so.”

Seventy-nine of the top 300 ASX-listed companies, which are mining companies, have no women on their board compared with just eight in construction, four in property, commercial services and drugs, and three in information technology.

The research comes despite new ASX Corporate Governance Council rules that require companies to disclose diversity targets and increasing calls for mandatory quotas. Some of the larger mining companies are making headway; BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto lead the pack with two women on their boards (Carolyn Hewson and Shriti Vadera on BHP) and (Vivienne Cox and Ann Godbehere at Rio Tinto). This year Fortescue Metals Group became the last company in the ASX top 50 to appoint a woman, Elizabeth Gaines, to its board.

But women executives mocked the claims by miners such as Discovery Metals, which wrote in its last annual report that “it went through an extensive and comprehensive recruitment process with external recruitment agencies to identify female directors with sufficient mining and finance expertise. No suitable female candidates were available”.

“Women on Boards thinks this is ridiculous and they clearly need to review their search and selection criteria and broaden their field of view,” executive director Claire Braund said.

Director of Macquarie Group and former Bluescope Steel director Diane Grady agreed. “I know of very senior and respected female directors and executives with extensive mining experience who have never been invited to join a mining company board, which seems strange,” she said.

The CGI report also found a glass ceiling preventing women directors from being appointed as chair. For the one out of every 10 directors who are women, only one chair was female for every 50 companies. Ms Grady said the glass ceiling at chairman level was real.

“I think sometimes the very skills that get women onto boards, hold them back from chair roles,” she said. “People don’t realise that women who ask challenging questions as a NED [non-executive director] would adopt a different style if they were chair,” Ms Grady said.

She said part of the reason was the difficulty women have of being both successful and likeable. As Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg writes in her controversial recent book Lean In: “If a woman is competent, she does not seem nice enough. If a woman seems really nice, she is considered more nice than competent. Since people want to hire and promote those who are both competent and nice, this creates a huge stumbling block for women.”

Ms Grady said sometimes women are offered the chairman role in companies that are struggling, but decline.

“Many women (including myself) have been offered chair roles, but declined. Maybe we should ‘lean in’ more as Sandberg suggests.

“On the other hand, I’ve heard senior male directors dismiss women candidates being considered for chair roles saying ‘they must not be chair material since they haven’t been offered the chair role in another public company’. Yet I know those women have been asked to be chair and declined.

“So the assumption that they ‘weren’t offered’ holds them back from other more attractive opportunities, even though it is not correct.”