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Letter from Australia – getting the right mix?

In her latest letter from Australia, Wonkhe's associate editor Julie Hare considers the question of diversity on university governing bodies.
This article is more than 3 years old

Julie is Wonkhe's Associate Editor in Australia.

I was in Adelaide a couple of weeks ago for the annual National Conference on University Governance. There were about 150 or so people in the room and the conference goers were largely made up of university chancellors and board members.

Sitting there, I struck by how incredibly white the room was. And male. Not just male, but male over the age of 65. There was one Asian woman in the room almost as a token gesture to diversity. And it got me thinking whether university governance bodies should be more reflective of their core stakeholders – students, staff and the community in general.  So I decided to see if my impressions of old, white and male were correct.

Counting the chancellors

First up, out of the 39 institutions that are members of the peak group Universities Australia, 35 currently have a male chancellor and only four have a female in that position. This, one has to admit, is pretty awful. Back in 2013, the figure was nine.

However, from the work I’ve done it is clear that gender equality on university governing bodies generally if far better than in corporate Australia.

In 2018, female representation on the top 200 Australian Stock Exchange (ASX)-listed companies reached an all-time high of 28.5% – still shy of the 30% target that was set for this year. That’s almost double the figure of five years ago, so there has been a change in the zeitgeist (and a lot of lobbying by gender equity campaigners such as Conrad Liveris who calculated that there were more men called Andrew running ASX200 companies in 2018 than women).

An analysis I did in 2013 found that university councils had on average 43% female representation. And my rough calculations this week, based on a lucky dip of 10 universities, reveal that while the number of female chancellors has more than halved, the proportion of female board members has improved and now sits above the 50% mark.

Deakin was a stand out six years ago and remains so today – a result of a conscious drive by the university to achieve parity of representation. As vice chancellor Jane den Hollander has said: “The question is why wouldn’t you have equal numbers of women on your council rather than why would you.”

At the other end of spectrum is Murdoch University which at the moment has just two women on its current board of 13 – there are three unfilled vacancies. While Murdoch has a female vice chancellor, it looks like like a case of not trying hard enough in terms of board representation.

How much diversity is enough?

But coming back to that conference in Adelaide. I started thinking some more about that solitary Asian heritage woman in that room filled to the rafters with old, white men. (I’m estimating more than half the conference delegates fitted that category and maybe represents those who have time to take three days to go to Adelaide for a conference).

So while gender representation is both good (board makeup) and bad (number of chancellors), it is when we get to ethnic diversity (or lack thereof), that the real issues emerge.

Let’s just look at some basic facts: the majority of university students are female, about one third of Australians are non-Anglo and about one in 30 are indigenous. About one in four of university students are full-fee paying international students. Universities function in a global marketplace for staff and that is reflected in the ethnic diversity of academics and researchers.

Out of my lucky dip sample of 10 universities (Deakin, RMIT, Melbourne, Sydney, Wollongong, UTS, Flinders, Murdoch, Curtin and UniSA) I found that four had all-white governing bodies, while the rest had one member – often the student representative – who came from a non-Anglo heritage.

Why does it matter?

I realise there are a lot of factors feeding into this. That state governments appoint three board members and it is incumbent on them to get on the diversity train (as opposed to rewarding political allies). That finding the right mix of specialist skills necessary on a board can be difficult at the best of times. That having got the gender mix more or less right they haven’t had time to think about ethnicity.

So if we think about it, a diverse board has a mix of skills, backgrounds, age, gender and ethnicity. Why? Because there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that “groupthink” is risky and recent history is littered with examples of where corporate (and university) boards have failed to scrutinise properly. And boards with more women tend to perform better financially.

The question is whether this is correlation or causation: does having a significant number of women in leadership positions lead to better outcomes? Or, do universities with relatively good governance see board diversity as a natural extension of how they already operate?

It’s a question that needs to be interrogated.

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