Why I want to throw a brick through my radio when they talk about gender equality

Comment from Peter Saxon

Last week we featured an article about the incredibly talented women on radio entitled Sisters are Doin’ it for Themselves.

This week we take a look at the status of women in radio – particularly in the board room, and how radio stacks up compared to other organisations in terms of gender equality.

In a recent interview on 2GB about the relative paucity of women on the boards of the top ASX 200 companies, Mark Levy filling in for Ben Fordham, spoke to the Chairman of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Elizabeth Proust who told listeners that Australia’s biggest companies were falling behind on a target of women comprising 30% of board members by the end of next year.

Ms Proust suggested that if companies were unwilling to appoint more female directors then some kind of quota system might need to be introduced. After the interview finished, before taking calls, Levy expressed his view saying, “I just think it’s another example of the world going mad as far as political BS, if you ask me.

“If you’ve got 5 people -10 people, vying for that position on the board or that job, you give it to the person best suited to the job – not because she’s a woman – not because he’s a bloke. I can’t come into that argument (quotas). It doesn’t wash with me.”

This is when I want to throw a brick through my radio

Unsurprisingly the ensuing calls (which aren’t on the recording below) were all in furious agreement with Levy. ‘Board positions should be handed out on merit and given to the best person for the job,’ was the mob’s verdict.

This is when I want to throw a brick through my radio. What annoys me is the utterly simplistic nature of the argument with no nuance entered into. Somehow a quite valid discussion about why women are under-represented in the boardroom and what could be done about it is hijacked by an argument about just one method of dealing with it – in this case quotas. So if quotas are rejected out of hand then that’s the end of the whole discussion about gender equality.

When you don’t have a valid argument against the actual question, switching the argument to one which you can legitimately attack is a tried and tested political tactic. The current SSM debate is a case in point.

To be fair, Ms Proust had the opportunity to put her case better than she did on the question of merit.

“Merit” is very difficult to quantify in deciding who is best suited for a directorship. It’s not like hiring an imaging producer or sales exec. 

For much the same reason you never see want ads for talent for metro market Breakfast shows, company directors aren’t normally recruited through job ads on Seek or through radioinfo. More often they are found by directors networking with other directors. And since most of those directors are male, the status quo is likely to remain. 

Some names are thrown in the ring at a board meeting and it is agreed that those people will be “sounded out” over lunch to see if they would be interested in joining the board should the opportunity arise. Often it’s a case of someone on the board having gone to a private school (usually all boys) with ‘Binky,’ “quite a sound chap, if I recall. A handy wicketkeeper for the First XI.”

In general the people approached are all going to be mature successful business leaders in their own right with proven track records in varying fields. Merit? It’s more about reputation and how they might interact with and enhance the board dynamic than utilising any specific skill set they may have.  Or it could be simply a matter of how many shares they have in the company or a financial commitment they’re willing to make in order to buy a seat.

All of the above tends to conspire against women getting a shot at a directorship. 

On the other hand, all too often women are chosen as tokens. “There are 64 boards that have only one female director,” said an AICD media release last month. “This includes 10 companies where the lone female director has been there for more than three years and multiple men have been appointed to the board since her appointment.

“One female director does not equal gender diversity. The research shows that critical mass, that is 30%, needs to be achieved in order to see the full benefits of diversity realised,” said the release.

Where does radio stand?

Currently the national average of women on the boards of ASX 200 companies stands at 25.4% which is far better than 8.3% recorded in 2009. While 25.4% sounds impressively close to the 30% target, Ms Proust points out that the forward momentum has stalled which is why the AICD is so concerned that the target may not be reached.

To compare apples with apples, there are five publicly listed companies in Australia that own radio stations – though not all are in the ASX 200.

Southern Cross Austereo has 9 board members of which 2 are women.

ARN’s parent HT&E has 6 board members of which 2 are women.

Macquarie Media Ltd has 7 board members of which 3 are women.

Pacific Star Network has 6 board members of which none are women.

That’s a total 28 board members of which 7 or 25% are women – which is just a smidgen below the national average of 25.4% but well below the AICD’s 30% target. 

If we add Seven West Media led by Kerry Stokes which has a holding in Redwave Media in W.A. (which makes up a tiny proportion of SWM’s revenue base) then we’re looking at a board of 9 of which one is female. That would bring the total average down to just 21.6%.

Since we’re talking radio, what of the other “boards of directors” in non-listed entities?

The Australian Broadcast Corporation has 7 board members of which 3 are women.

Commercial Radio Australia has 11 board members of which 2 are women – not counting CEO Joan Warner.

Then there’s Grant Broadcasters which is more of a constitutional monarchy with Janet Cameron Queen and her offspring being two Princes and a Princess. Nonetheless the Grant Broadcasters website lists 4 board members of which 2 are women – and as Janet told radioinfo last year, she has never been outvoted by the other three.

After that we start to get into oranges versus kiwi fruits with sole traders like Bill Caralis’ Super Network, Bruce Gordon’s WIN Network and Ron Camplin’s Bathurst Broadcasters as well as partnerships and such like Resonate, ACE and Capital Radio Network

And then there’s Nova Entertainment owned by Lachlan Murdoch’s private company illyria which lists Ms Siobhan Louise McKenna as Managing Partner. The  NOVA Entertainment board is comprised of Lachlan Murdoch, Siobhan McKenna and Cathy O’Connor who is also its CEO. On the face of it these two formidable women in leadership positions are likely to have a powerful influence on the one man but their two votes carry less weight than his one. Not because of any gender bias – it’s just that Mr Murdoch has the majority shareholding. 

Radio has come a long way since WSFM put Sydney’s first “traffic chicks” to air in 1978. Women today are just as likely to be recruited for major shifts as men, at least on FM stations. Curiosly, MML, the ASX listed commercial network with the least women on-air has the highest proportion of women, 3, on it’s board of 7. 

Just as it took a critical mass of women on-air to finally dispell the theory that they didn’t appeal to audiences, it will take a critical mass of female directors before they are appointed not because of, or despite their gender but simply because they are the best available option at the time.

According to the AICD’s research, 30% is the critical mass required for that to happen. Perhaps quotas are not the best way of reaching that target. If not, what is?

Surely a creative industry like ours should be able to come up with a solution. More women on radio boards? We’d be a better industry for it.

  Peter Saxon