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Australian Women Trail U.S. in Boardroom Power, Report Shows

Fewer women hold positions on boards of the 200 biggest publicly traded Australian companies than among the largest U.S. firms, even after a 46 percent increase in the past two years, a government report showed.

Women hold 12.3 percent of directorships of companies listed on the S&P/ASX 200 Index of stocks, compared with 8.4 percent in 2010, according to the report released today. Women comprise 9.2 percent of executives in the 500 biggest publicly listed companies in Australia, compared with 16.1 percent for the U.S. Fortune 500 Index, the data show.

“When it comes to boards, the number of women is still very small,” said Helen Conway, director at the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency that commissioned the report. “Disappointingly, Australia has the lowest percentage of female executives compared to countries with similar governance structures. We’ve been conducting the census for 10 years and, frankly, you’d expect to see more progress.”

Australia, governed by its first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard, ranked 25th this year in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index that measures economic participation, education, health and political empowerment in 135 countries. Under rules introduced last year, Australia’s stock exchange requires companies to set and report targets for gender diversity at board and senior management level, a move endorsed by Westpac Banking Corp. Chief Executive Officer Gail Kelly.

Female CEOs

Twelve of the 500 biggest publicly listed companies in Australia had female CEOs, according to the survey, which was expanded this year to include the top 500 companies. It also showed 23.3 percent of female directors hold more than one directorship. According to the survey, 141 women hold line management roles, fewer than the 2,148 men in such posts.

“You’ve got to build a female talent pipeline and have sponsorship of that talent,” Lyn Cobley, head of the treasury division at Commonwealth Bank of Australia, the nation’s biggest bank by market value, said in a telephone interview. “You need a lot of leave and carer provisions to actually start to channel up those women to get close to senior level roles.”

Banks and insurers have the highest level of female participation on boards. Women are under-represented in roles that may lead to senior management and leadership, the survey found.

“The progression of women into senior leadership positions has stalled and more radical approaches are now required,” Mike Smith, chief executive officer at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. in Melbourne, said in a statement accompanying the report. “This is not just about addressing equality, it actually makes good business sense and those organizations that take action will reap the economic benefits of a more productive workforce.”

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