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According to merit?: Women on board

Every Issue

Cite as: (2005) 79(7) LIJ, p. 93

Board membership offers women lawyers both personal and professional benefits.

Sometimes I feel I have been beamed back in time.

Flicking through Vogue in Coles recently, I saw model after model wearing my grandmother’s clothes. While I quickly gleaned that “vintage” is back, brooches, pearls and tweed spawn too many memories of my childhood dress-up box for me.

Shopping done, I drove home listening to a steady stream of male talkback callers arguing that abortions should be illegal. Didn’t our mothers have this debate 20 years ago?

I felt the same sense of displacement when I came across the statistic that women comprise only 8.4 per cent of the board members of major Australian companies.[1]

Figures are not much better in the not-for-profit sector where women comprise just 26 per cent of members of Australian not-for-profit boards and committees.[2] In government circles, things are a little better. Women comprise 40 per cent of members of Victorian boards and committees.[3]

While there are a range of possible explanations as to why women are under-represented on Australian boards and committees, the fact is women represent 51 per cent of the Victorian population. It is time women lawyers in Victoria got ourselves on the boards, committees, tribunals and councils that represent our interests.

“What’s in it for me?” you ask. Successfully negotiating the challenges and responsibilities of board service – such as overseeing finances, reporting to stakeholders and fulfilling legal responsibilities – can allow you to acquire a whole new set of valuable skills. Being on a board also allows you to gain new knowledge and meet new people and expand your networks, which can be useful in other facets of your professional or private life. On a personal level, knowing that you are influencing decisions that affect the community can also give you a considerable sense of personal satisfaction.

Lawyers are particularly attractive to boards. In fact, many boards have statutory requirements requiring that they have legal practitioners among their membership.

The role of most boards is to provide leadership, direction and strategy for their organisation. Boards are also charged with ensuring an organisation’s finances are sound, its operations are legal, its procedures work and its assets are safeguarded. Lawyers have skills and qualifications that make us well suited for these roles.

And it isn’t just women that stand to gain from joining boards. As the Victorian Office of Women’s Policy website says: “boards need women more than women need boards”. Boards also benefit from having more women at the table. Not only does it mean the board more closely represents its stakeholders, women represent a huge pool of (largely) untapped candidates from which boards can fill vacancies. Women also bring new voices, experiences and approaches to the decision-making process.

Research by US-based advisory organisation Catalyst found that companies with a higher representation of women in senior management positions financially outperform companies with proportionally fewer women at the top. Specifically, companies with the highest representation of women on their senior management teams had a 35 per cent higher return on equity than companies with the lowest women’s representation.

Rhonda Galbally, CEO of Our Community and a seasoned board member, says that a good place to get board experience is in the not-for-profit sector.

Our Community is an online resource that provides information to thousands of Australian community groups. It has a board matching service where you can search vacancies on community group boards or committees of management. Good Company offers a similar service.

For government committees, the state government’s Women’s Register is a database where women can register their interest in joining board or committee positions. This database is made available to government ministers, senior government officials and approved not-for-profit organisations and community groups when vacancies arise.

Boards come in all shapes and sizes: big, small, high and low-profile. Thousands of boards operate in Victoria in a range of areas including sport, arts, environment, government advisory and agriculture.

So whether it is the Australian Grand Prix Corporation Board, the Mental Health Review Board, the Chinese Medicine Registration Board or your local legal community centre that piques your interest – get on board.

MICHELLE TESORIERO is a corporate lawyer at Esanda Finance Corporation, a subsidiary of ANZ Bank. The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author.

[1] Australian Women in Leadership Census 2003, published by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency.

[2] Woodward, Susan and Marshall, Shelley, A Better Framework: Reforming not-for-profit regulation, 2004, Centre for Corporate Law and Securities Regulation, University of Melbourne.

[3] Office of Women’s Policy website:


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