Equality in the boardroom

Elizabeth Proust AO discusses the importance of gender diversity in leadership roles

Elizabeth Proust AO has rightly earned a reputation as one of Australia’s leading business figures and change-makers. She has excelled in high-profile and influential leadership roles, traversing both the public and private sectors, and has been a trailblazer, role model and mentor for many women.

Elizabeth spoke to UOW Outlook Magazine about gender diversity and the importance of promoting women into leadership roles.

Gender diversity in the boardroom is linked to better 
organisational performance and culture, but many boards are still dominated by men. What more do you think can be done to encourage and increase the percentage of women in the boardroom?

In the last few years, there has been a great deal of activity leading to more than 30 per cent of female representation on ASX200 boards. This has been achieved by mentoring programs, such as those offered by the Australian Institute of Company Directors, by advocacy, and by the positive impact that women have made on boards.

Women are still underrepresented in CEO roles and overrepresented in roles such as HR, marketing and so on. I think that the next big step will only occur when there are more women in CEO and senior line roles in companies.

It has been suggested that women bring different qualities in decision making that can be even more important during times of significant change and upheaval. How can women be confident in bringing that different aspect into a board meeting?

It can be difficult in all-male, or almost all-male environments for women to find their own voices. It is especially difficult when there is just one woman around the board table. One of the reasons for the 30 per cent target of women on boards is to ensure that there are at least two women in the room. Women require persistence, hard work and dedication to win through – talents most women have in spades.

Can you share any experiences of your own where you’ve had to overcome gender bias?

For much of my career, I was the only woman in the room, or, in some cases, the first woman to lead. I think that my education by very dedicated nuns, and a mother who thought that there was nothing I could not achieve, helped me to navigate difficult circumstances. This is the reason I have always supported the education of girls and women and continue to mentor women today.

What have been some of your biggest lessons in your own board career?

A board career is immensely rewarding, intellectually. I havebeen a full-time director since 2006, with board roles in the not-for-profit, government and private sectors before then. Such roles require collaboration and good teamwork. The role of the Chairman is crucial and one of my lessons is to learn from the best Chairs and, in the organisations that I have chaired, and chair, to put into practice their lessons.

What role can men play to support women looking to embark on a board career?

Men need women in their networks and need to understand the full range of skills and experiences that women can bring. The achievement of the 30 per cent target would not have been possible without the support and active mentoring by many men, including Chairmen of ASX companies.

You have acted as mentor for many women, including staff and students in our Business and Law Schools at UOW. How important is the role of mentoring?

Whether it is during one’s management/executive role, orsubsequently during a board career, everyone benefits from mentoring. It can be as simple as having someone to bounce ideas off and can extend to long-term relationships which provide networks, advice and conversations about best practice.

Finally, SuperFriend, of which you have been Chairman since early 2021, has a unique vision for an Australia where all workplaces are mentally healthy. Can you tell us a bit more about this and how they plan to go about helping organisations navigate their wellbeing journey?

SuperFriend is a collaboration between industry super fundsand insurers who realised back in 2007 that the extent of the impact of mental illness and suicide on their members required a different response. We help a range of organisations through their wellness journey, advocate for policies to help achieve change in workplaces, and provide insights to governments, industry and organisations about a range of mental health issues.

Elizabeth Proust AO

Elizabeth Proust is Chairman of Cuscal Ltd, a non-executive director of Lendlease Ltd and Chairman of SuperFriend since May 2021.

In 2010 Elizabeth was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for distinguished service to public administration and to business through leadership roles in government and private enterprise, as a mentor to women, and to the community through contributions to arts, charitable and educational bodies.

She is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and holds an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Wollongong as well as Monash and La Trobe universities.