Towards diverse boards: Pathways to directorship

July 21, 2020

Increased diversity in the boardroom is critical to innovation, says CRC Association CEO Tony Peacock.

The most common undergraduate degree for ASX 50 CEOs is science. However, when it comes to the boardroom, Australia lacks technical literacy, according to a recent member survey by the Australian Institute of Company Directors

Although three-quarters of members said their organisation had an innovation vision, more than half said innovation rarely, if ever, featured on their board’s agenda. Also, worryingly, only around one-third of members felt their board possessed the right skills and expertise to properly consider modern technology, and only 3 per cent of directors had personal expertise in science and technology. 

While having scientists on boards is certainly a step in the right direction, technical expertise is not the only form of diversity a board would benefit from. Australia also has a problem when it comes to gender diversity on boards, with less than one-third of people on ASX 200 boards being women.

The CRC Association commissioned Women on Boards to conduct a survey on CRC board diversity. Among other things, it showed women’s representation had only slightly improved throughout the decade.  

The session at Collaborate Innovate 2019, where the results were presented, prompted a question from a talented CRC program manager, to the effect of, “How does a young researcher ever get onto a board?”

I found the answer from the stage — which was essentially to go and do a $10,000 course — unsatisfying. So did the individual who asked the question, noting that their employer was unlikely to send anyone who was not already a senior manager on a course at that level.  

This year, the CRC Association has responded with its new board diversity initiative, ‘Towards Diverse Boards: Pathways to Directorship’. We have partnered with the Governance Institute of Australia to offer 20 people from groups currently under-represented on boards to undertake the Institute’s Certificate in Governance Practice or Certificate in Governance for Not-for-Profits. The Certificates will be completed online and are heavily subsidised to reduce the barrier to entry.

But we know access to formal education is not enough to facilitate change. While the participants are studying, we’ve organised some incredible coaches on various aspects of best practice: the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, The Hon Karen Andrews MP; head of the Australian Space Agency, Dr Megan Clark; former president of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, Dr Marlene Kanga; CEO of the Governance Institute of Australia, Megan Motto; former chief scientist of South Australia, Dr Leanna Read; and the chair of the CRC Association, Belinda Robinson. 

We’re also partnering with Dr Ruby Campbell, managing partner and founder of ProVeritas Group and author of Scientists in Every Boardroom: Harnessing the Power of STEMM Leaders in an Irrational World.

In order to spread the message further, every Towards Diverse Boards participant will receive a complimentary copy of Scientists in Every Boardroom, as will every Collaborate Innovate 2021 conference attendee. I hope they will find it useful and that it serves to remind them of their role in encouraging more scientists and other kinds of diversity on boards. After all, research shows us that diversity pays off.

Tony PeacockTony Peacock is the CEO of the Cooperative Research Centres Association.

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