A directorship is the pinnacle of their career but most high-flying women don't plan for it.
If you ask a man how he got to sit on the board of a company, you are likely to hear a story of careful planning, networking and strategy. But most female directors appear to have been taken by surprise.
As many as three-quarters of female directors say they didn't plan their first non-executive directorship, the opportunity dropped into their laps, according to a study by recruitment group Korn Ferry. Only 22 per cent of the 57 women surveyed say they actively sought the opportunity. This is understandable because, until changes to ASX reporting regime in 2011 and to the NZX's in late 2012, the corridor to the boardroom was firmly blocked to all but a handful of women. It probably didn't seem like much of an option.
But when the ASX brought in its "If not, why not" rule to force companies to divulge and explain their performance on promoting women, there was a sudden rush in Australia to find women who were "board-ready".
Only 10 women were appointed to boards in 2009 but, when the ASX's "If not, why not" disclosure rule was announced the following year, 56 women (25 per cent of all appointments) were given board seats. That number rose to 68 (28 per cent of appointments) in 2011, but then dropped and plateaued at 22 per cent in 2012 and 2013.
In New Zealand the Human Rights Commission's most recent Census of Women's Participation found that just 14.75 per cent of directors were women in the top 100 listed companies.
Today, in the ASX Top 200, 44 companies still have no women on their boards.
Nicola Wakefield Evans is one of those women whose career took an unexpected turn when she was offered her first directorship, at Toll Holdings.
"It came out of the blue, as I hadn't consciously thought of a NED [non-executive director] career at that time," she says.
"I was relatively young, just turning 50, and I thought it would take another five years before I would sit on a listed board.
"And, while I don't think I was appointed to Toll because I was female - it was more because I had run a business in Asia - there was a big push at the time to get women on boards."
Wakefield Evans is also a non-executive director at Lend Lease, Macquarie Group, and Bupa Australia and New Zealand. She is a former managing partner with King & Wood Mallesons in Sydney and Hong Kong.
Korn Ferry's Beyond ‘If not, why not' report tackles the questions of what boards could do to become women friendly. Thirty-six per cent say increasing the number of women on the board to three or more is the most effective way of creating an environment in which women can do their best work. Another 30 per cent suggest ensuring that all voices around the boardroom table are heard.
Chairman of Colonial First State Investments Anne Ward says that being the only woman on a board can mean being expected to represent the views of all women.
"You are expected to know what women will think about an issue, or you are asked, ‘What will our female customers think about this?' " she says.
"If you are one of two women, it can be a little challenging for the men around the table - and this is not restricted to boards - because you might not share a view. So the question ‘what do women think?' isn't black and white, because these two women think differently.
"When there are three women, you do become part of the fabric of the board and your gender becomes less important."
Ward also chairs the boards of Avanteos Investments, the Qantas Superannuation Plan, and Zoos Victoria and is a director of FlexiGroup.
The female directors have mixed opinions on whether the environment for women on boards has improved disclosure requirements. Around 30 per cent say things are better, but another 22 per cent say boards are fixed on the idea that just having one woman "ticks the box".
The managing director of Korn Ferry, Katie Lahey, says momentum has been lost when it comes to appointing women to boards, partly because of a lack of a pipeline.
Just seven ASX 200 companies have female CEOs. The traditional path to a directorship usually includes C-suite experience.
One-third of the female directors say they wish they had focused on building relationships earlier in their careers, while 21 per cent would like to have been more strategic in their planning, and 18 per cent said they should have put themselves forward for senior executive roles.
GET ON (THE) BOARD: BUILD YOUR POWER NETWORK NOW
Women who would like to be offered a seat on a company board need to start building business relationships much earlier in their careers, rather than trying to find sponsors when they are about to try to make the jump. A survey of 57 female non-executive directors (appointed since 2010) finds that one-third wished they had not waited so long to start networking.
The survey by Korn Ferry, Beyond ‘if not, why not': The pathway to directorship for women in leadership, also finds that 21 per cent wished they'd been more strategic in their planning, and 18 per cent said they should have put themselves forward for senior executive roles.
The managing director of Korn Ferry, Katie Lahey, says she makes a conscious effort to make sure she leaves the comfort zone of mixing with other women.
"You have to be seen, out and about," she advises.
"And that networking does take an effort, especially if you have had a full day at work."
The Korn Ferry survey offers six tips for women who want to be strategic about shaping their path to the boardroom:
1. DEVELOP YOUR EXECUTIVE CAREER WITH AN EYE ON YOUR BOARD CAREER
Be aggressive in advancing in your line role. Don't shift out of management too early. Gain as much senior corporate experience as possible, particularly a C-suite position with profit and loss responsibility. All these help secure high-profile board roles.
2. ENSURE YOU HAVE BOARDROOM SKILLS
Fill any gap in skills, particularly related to financials such as the balance sheet and cash flow drivers of a business. Be prepared not only to understand, but contribute to the debate on key accounting and financing issues. Complete the AICD Company Directors course.
3. OBTAIN BOARD EXPERIENCE
While still an executive, seek a seat on a subsidiary and/or non-profit board to gain experience. Be a willing and active participant on industry committees and working parties. Consider government boards in which quality non-executive directors and good governance exist.
4. KNOW THE RIGHT PEOPLE
Networks are extremely important and new director selections are still heavily influenced by existing board members. Find a mentor - or better yet, a sponsor - who will open doors and introduce you to others. Ask senior board directors for recommendations and referrals.
5. CHOOSE A BOARD WITH CARE
Research the company, the directors, and their track record of governance. Do not underestimate the importance of board dynamics and personal relationships in determining whether you'll find a board position fulfilling.
Try to select boards in which there is at least one other woman. Being the only woman on a board can be isolating.
6. MARKET YOURSELF SMARTLY
Have clarity on the kind of board you are interested in, and know what you would bring to such an opportunity. Have confidence and courage to put yourself forward for roles. Display a maturity that is essential in the boardroom.
Remain confident in your ambition, and know that more often than not, rejection for selection is structural, not personal. But don't leave your executive life until you have secured some board seats, as you lose currency quickly.
-Australian Financial Review