Women’s Business Summit Brings 1,200 to Sydney

Sydney, Australia -The Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina, Kosovo’s former President Atifete Jahjaga and Vietnam’s Vice President Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh joined 1,200 participants from 65 countries at this year’s Global Summit of Women hosted by Australia for the first time in the forum’s 28-year history.

Led by its President Irene Natividad, the global gathering brought to Sydney thirty government Ministers, as well as hundreds of corporate CEOs, executives and entrepreneurial women leaders from five continents for exchanges of best practices that speed up women’s economic advancement. Among the countries with the largest delegations at the Summit are China, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Korea, and South Africa. This year also marked the first time the Pacific Island nations were represented at the annual Summit.

“We are pleased to hold this global gathering in a city whose Mayor is a woman, where the New South Wales Premier is a woman, and the highest ranking Minister – the Minister of Foreign Affairs – is also a woman,” states Summit President Irene Natividad. “They are part of the reason we are here, but the most important one is to showcase Australia’s public/private sector collaboration to create a level playing field for women,” she adds.

Australia’s Male Champions of Change created by the Human Rights Commission and the ASX’s proactive inclusion of gender diversity in member companies’ annual reporting are two best practices Natividad cited as instrumental in Australia’s current 28.6% women-held board seats in the ASX100. Natividad stated that “The Summit is primarily a business forum, and where women are in corporate leadership is a primary concern.”

In line with this focus, a report released at the Summit’s opening session -- Women Directors in the Fortune Global 200 -- showed only 21.4% of board seats are held by women in the largest companies in the world based in 26 countries. Regionally, the Asia Pacific region – well-represented at this year’s Summit – had the lowest percentage of women directors in its largest companies at 7.6%, while the region with the best record of appointing women directors is Europe at 32.1%. Within Europe, France and Italy posted the highest increases with women’s board appointments at 42.3% and 34.8% respectively.

What accounts for Europe’s success in moving more women into the corporate boardroom is the proactive use of quotas now adopted by 24 countries. In the report’s Top Ten list of best performing companies with the highest percentage of women directors, the majority are based in Europe with French energy giant, Engie, topping the global listing with a predominantly female board at 52.9%.

“The ‘supply’ of board-ready women has been there for some time, but what quotas do is force the demand from companies within a specified deadline. That’s why they’re effective,” states Natividad who released the findings and led a Summit session on what works in opening up the global board room to women.

Beyond quotas, another effective initiative now adopted by 28 countries is the inclusion of gender diversity as a principle of good corporate governance. Australia, the U.K. and Finland are cited in the report as having been particularly successful in combining this recommendation with specific targets to be reached in terms of women’s appointments to boards.

What distinguishes both strategies is that they are national initiatives, and the report repeatedly underscored that efforts to increase women’s access to corporate leadership must be national in scope in order to be effective.

U.S. companies, which used to dominate Top Ten listings in 2004 and had a larger presence in the Fortune Global 200, now has seen sluggish growth of .5% to 1% yearly in the number of women directors. The largest economy in the world does not have a national strategy in place, nor do the second (China) or the third largest (Japan), so the rates of increases in the percentage of women directors are low in these three leading economies in comparison to European countries which have adopted more aggressive measures to increase women’s access to board seats.

The report recommends continued exposure of the ‘business case’ -- that more women in senior leadership correlates with companies’ better financial performance -- to CEOs and C-suite executives so that they see gender diversity on boards as a business priority and not as a socio-cultural, issue