Women on Boards


UQ Business School Downtown
Level 19, Central Plaza One, 345 Queen Street, Brisbane
22nd October 2010 12.00

© dale spender

More than thirty years ago when I was living in London, there was a big move among some women to get more women on boards.

The Fawcett Society, the oldest society in England that has worked for women’s equality, was committed to direct action. It was a conservative society – and its campaign for change came as something of a surprise to me.

The Society called on its (generally well-heeled) members for a list of their share holdings. From this list a selection of major companies was made and the shareholder of each was contacted, and asked to attend the relevant AGM.

If the woman herself could be present, all well and good: if not – a proxy was arranged for someone who could be there as part of the campaign.

Then, during the AGM season in London, every major publicly listed company was presented with a challenge by a woman shareholder.

At a crucial prearranged moment during the meeting, a Society member would stand up and politely ask – the exclusively grey suited assembly of directors on the stage of the 5 star hotel auditorium — WHEN WILL THE BOARD APPOINT WOMEN?

The responses were varied: also, fortuitously, they were almost always covered by the (previously alerted) press, as there weren’t many stories about disgruntled shareholders at that time.
Confronted with the disruptive question, some men – on and off the stage — would behave badly. As would some women.

But more often than not – there would be women shareholders who would suddenly recognise the significance of the question – and who would add their voices in support of action.

More than a few of the male directors tried to ‘move on’ by assuring the audience that this matter would be addressed at the next AGM.

This is why the Fawcett society kept very good records.
So … the following year, the Society members would be back to again question the all male cast – and even more women in the audience would want to know why there had been no changes on the board, and no report of progress in the AGM papers.

(And there were some very serious dowagers present, who, having had their consciousness raised, were further outraged that nothing had been done since the last AGM; so ferocious were some of them that I almost felt sorry for the pin striped persons out the front who were at a loss for words.)

And then one day – after training – it was my turn! Armed with my proxy, and having passed the scrutiny of the men on the door, I have to say I was more nervous than I have ever been.

Sitting there in the audience of a multinational’s AGM, waiting for the opportunity to rise to my feet, I listened to some of the mutterings around me. They ranged from ‘I hope those bloody women don’t make a nuisance of themselves this year’ — to women declaring that it was time something was done about these male directors, who clearly weren’t going to voluntarily appoint women to their ranks.

When I did get up and ask the stock question – WHY HAVE YOU NOT PUT WOMEN ON THE BOARD – WHEN YOU SAID LAST YEAR THAT YOU WOULD – pandemonium broke out.

A group of women shareholders – who were unknown to me – but whose behaviour was equally orchestrated, got up and called for the directors to be sacked.

This was civilised London in the 1970s in the heart of the establishment, and I was in the middle of a battle of the sexes. It was such a pleasure to see!

Women exercising their rights – and demanding more – in the name of equality.
And organised by the Fawcett Society – a bi-word for conservatism. Except of course that some of the members knew a lot about the earlier battles for VOTES for WOMEN and the campaigns of the suffragettes: they had learnt either from direct experience, or from tales their mothers told them.

As I tried to escape from the fracas I had helped to start, I thought about those women who had fought for the vote – years before. They too had come up against the wall of all male institutions; everywhere they looked for progress – there were the men. This is why the all-male parliament was their target.

If they got the vote they could legislate to open the doors of male only universities, and male only professions like law and medicine.

Their task had been much greater, their resources fewer – and initially – anyway — they were constrained by the requirements of ladylike behaviour.

If I had felt hot and bothered getting up to ask a question – how much more difficult would it have been for those sheltered ladies to stand up at a public meeting – and in a voice that could be heard – politely ask –

What they were doing was considered ‘rude’; they had to break through all the barriers of nerves and embarrassment – and humiliation. – They were mocked, man-handled, and marched out; and then frequently jailed and force fed. This was no work for the timid.

And sometimes they found the harassment even more galling.

Men would patronise them, and fail to take them seriously. Their response to women’s demand for suffrage was often to tell women that it simply wasn’t necessary. Men, they said, were representative of mankind, and they could be trusted to act in women’s best interest.

Decades after the vote had been won in England and Australia, I was aware that the directors I had confronted at the meeting had displayed much the same condescending attitude to the women shareholders; ‘no need to get upset’.

As if we were the ones who were unbalanced and unreasonable.
(Aside: Inequality is unreasonable; defences of the practice are illogical: those who argue for justice and a fair deal are the rational and balanced ones ………!)

The suffragettes had not for a minute believed men’s reassurances that they could represent women. Not when the same men were passing laws to stop women from owning property, from getting a divorce or obtaining an education.


I am not sure what the figures are today in London. But here in Australia, 104 of the top 200 ASX companies (that’s 52%) STILL have no women on the board. Presumably the male directors believe they also represent all of humanity, and can be trusted to act in women’s best interest.

We think we are frustrated at the lack of progress – but think of the rights that we have won – and the successes we have achieved.

(Education! In the space of not much more than 100 years – women have surpassed the educational achievements of men; women are almost 60 % of university graduates these days; not that there are any guarantees! Girls may do better at school and have more degrees – but as we can see – boys still run the world and many boardrooms!) )

To women more than a century ago – with no education, no professions, no property and no power — the victory of the vote must have often seemed impossible.

But then at the beginning of the 20th century along came Christabel Pankhurst, who declared that for too long women had been politely petitioning for Votes and requesting the franchise, and that this approach just wasn’t getting results.

Too many good women were being hurt and it was getting them nowhere!
What was required was a change of tactics; it was she who devised the strategy of civil disobedience. It became the hallmark of the suffragette movement and was astonishingly successful: it was also observed and copied by Mahatma Gandhi!

And maybe there are lessons here for women-who-want-to-be-on-boards – in 2010.
Men, proclaimed Christabel, aren’t going to hand over power because they are asked nicely. Men are only going to give it up when it is easier to concede power than it is to keep it!
And this applies outside parliament as well as in it!

She inspired women to make so much trouble that it would be men who wearied of it – and who would give in!
Young women loved it – but so too did older women who had become wearied by the battle. Standing up at meetings and getting arrested was hard work. Getting up the noses of male politicians was much more fun and proved to be far more effective.

Prior to the pranks of the suffragettes, women had tried to reassure men that they had nothing to fear from enfranchising women. The meals would still be cooked, the children cared for, and the trains would run on time.

But Christabel wasn’t into appeasement. Men should be frightened by the power of women, she insisted; let them feel the consequences of NOT moving over – and sharing the parliament with females.

Women flocked to join the WSPU, and the glorious struggle; from working class women to aristocrats they came forward practising ‘self denial’ by donating their jewels and allowances, along with their services.
At one time, the WSPU was very cashed up, and was the biggest political party in England – even though they still couldn’t vote!

Women started to refer to Parliament as the ‘men’s parliament’ and to hold huge meetings in the vicinity of Westminster – and call them the women’s parliament!

No votes, no census! – women declared one year.

The night the census was taken, women organised a huge event at Aldwych Skating Rink; ‘We were all very tired by morning’ one woman said – ‘but we were so pleased to have diddled the government of names for the census’.

The suffragettes were superbly organised and they embarked on coordinated trouble-making on a grand scale. When warned that men wouldn’t like them if they continued their bad behaviour – they retorted that men didn’t like them anyway – or else they would pass the act for votes for women!

And I am tempted to draw the parallels here with the absence of women from board representation! What does male-only membership say about women – and has the time come for the men to be rudely contradicted?

The suffragettes did not want to harm people but they were pretty keen on damaging property – which they saw as symbolically male. And one of their best events was the Oxford Street Smash.
Then as now, Oxford Street was the busiest shopping and commercial centre in London. On one customary cold and dreary day, there were scores of beautifully dressed women carrying their muffs, browsing along the shop fronts. But all was not as it seemed.

At an appointed time (and watches had been synchronised) there was an almighty bang as every plate glass window in Oxford Street suddenly shattered. The sound was deafening. (Thousands of windows were involved.)

But what was most perplexing was that no one could determine how it had happened. As usual, Oxford Street was full of elegant, well-bred women – some of whom were – ‘apparently’ in shock. They were waved on for fear that they might be further traumatised or hurt by falling glass.

Each women walked away carrying her hammer in her muff.

No one was caught. But along Oxford Street, VOTES FOR WOMEN leaflets somehow appeared everywhere.
VOTES FOR WOMEN leaflets became something of a problem in the first decade of the 20th century. Theatres had to be closed because at the most dramatic moments leaflets dropped from the ceiling – or a woman appeared through a trapdoor on stage – or descended from the wings on a flying fox – handing out VOTES FOR WOMEN literature.

Their royal majesties were obliged to cancel all court presentations because women could not be sufficiently vetted. The good ones couldn’t be separated from the rebels – with the result that debutantes curtsied – and then said VOTES FOR WOMEN YOUR MAJESTY: and there was chaos when they were evicted from the palace.

Other events were aimed at disrupting the lives of powerful men. One morning, gentlemen golfers (and this category included many Members of Parliament) who went to play a round, found that just about every green in England had been dug up – and sported a sign that declared NO VOTES – NO GOLF!!!

For Edwardian women who had led such restricted lives – this was an exhilarating struggle. When Prime Minister Asquith insisted that women didn’t want the vote – his wife had told him so – the WSPU organised the biggest demo and speak out that Hyde Park has ever witnessed.

It wasn’t all fun and glee. The suffragettes were considered fair game by many members of the general public who thought that they were destroying society. Whenever the women held street meetings or put on street theatre, they often had to flee from angry mobs.

Yet even as the press condemned them and called them wicked, embittered, ugly – and unable to get a man – women broke with the conventions of polite womanhood and volunteered in droves for ‘the cause’:
Viscountess Rhondda came from a family where all the women took it as matter of honour to be arrested as a public nuisance. ‘I do dislike rotten eggs more than any other political missile I know’ she said.

No one man generated more antagonism among the suffragettes than PM Asquith – who was the greatest obstacle to women’s enfranchisement. Women set out to discombobulate him; their weapon was to make him look foolish. They followed him everywhere – always insisting on VOTES FOR WOMEN.

It was widely reported in the press that he was being smuggled around like a bale of contraband as his security people tried to protect him from the words – and wiles – of women.

On one occasion he looked up from his dining room (where he was entertaining official guests) only to find that there were VOTES FOR WOMEN placards at the windows – held by grinning women. Outside it was no better as – despite security arrangements – his garden was full of tiny, colourful votes for women badges among the flower beds.

Nor was his peace of mind enhanced by a pronouncement of one of the WSPU leaders that women were out of control and that men should not sleep safely in their beds.

There’s no doubt that the Suffragettes started a revolution. They changed forever the image of Victorian womanhood; they established women as a force to be reckoned with.

They were instrumental in having many institutions and opportunities opened up for women – even if they didn’t get the vote until 1928 in England (and then only for women over 30 who owned property).

But there is a lesson here. And it is that women have never achieved reform – by asking nicely. Power has always been defended and contested. As Katie Lahey has said – Nice policies don’t work!

And as I would add – we need to start being impolite – even rude – and causing trouble – if we want to get more women on boards; I can hear the voices of those amazing Australian women who fought for the vote asking our generation — – just how difficult can it be to get women on boards?

If you come across the standard textbook entry that in 1901 –men gave women the vote in Australia – don’t you believe it.

Women won the vote. And if I had the time I would list the many campaigns conducted by everyone from Louisa Lawson, to Emma Miller.

In Queensland there was Margaret Ogg who at the end of the 19th century toured outback Queensland informing women of their existing rights – (or lack of them) and urging them to fight for the vote.

When the men of the towns refused to let her hire the hall for her trouble making meetings – she bought a horse and sulky and with the aid of a hurricane lamp – preached patriarchal sedition – evidently to a lot of eager outback women!

For us, dislodging male board members today – should be an absolute pushover!

I could tell you more about Dora Montefiore who when she went to hear her husbands will read out – found that he had left their sons to his friend: in law she was informed by the male solicitor, the child of the married woman only has one parent – the father…… !

It was enough to turn her into an instant feminist she announced. And like so many other women she determined to get the vote, get women into parliament – and get the laws changed.

But it took more than 40 years after women got the vote before women got seats in parliament.

And it is the case that it wasn’t until there were women members of parliament that bills were introduced to provide child and family benefits, to make divorce more accessible – and more recently to encode domestic violence laws. (In Queensland we still have a way to go with laws on termination.)

The suffragettes and so many other women were right. Men cannot represent women’s interests. Whether in parliament or on the board. And to claim otherwise is a lie.

But male privilege persists. And women can play a complicit role in its perpetuation.
Women today are still bound by codes of politeness that we aren’t always conscious of. We don’t always appreciate the extent to which invisible ties pressure us into pleasing men – and propping up power – particularly in conversations.

Yet when I did my research on women and men’s language – the evidence was clear and convincing.

Having taped hundreds (thousands?) of mixed sex conversations, when it came to transcribing and writing up the research — I was astonished to find how little women talked in the presence of men.

And when they did talk, just how helpful and accommodating women were – getting men out of embarrassing situations – glossing over their errors or silly statements! Avoiding the glitches and keeping the conversation flowing.

At one stage I thought I would have to write up my PhD, recording women’s language as ……um – really – poor you – what did you do then…. Oh goodness….

Alternatively, I could have written up the language of men (always exceptions of course – but not many) as performing 98% of the interruptions in conversation with women.

(Just watch Andrew Bolt on Insiders when there are women on the panel!

Andrew Bolt

Andrew Bolt

* (Google Images)

I could have provided the statistics on the number of times women’s speech was corrected by men (Another example of why Andrew Bolt is a feminist researcher’s dream – he tells every woman she is wrong – but to be fair he also tells David Marr and a few other men.)
Generally the women politely accept the interruptions and corrections. And this happens in real life as well as on the telly. And what is so glaringly obvious to me as a power play often seems to go un-noted.
(Women often notice of course – they roll their eyes at one another — a secret code that acknowledges they know what the men are doing and that they don’t believe a word of what the men have said!)
Isnt it time we called men to account? Conversed with them as equals and started making demands? Causing trouble!
If we want a seat on the board there is no point in waiting for men to see ‘reason’ and give it to us. We have to make life difficult.

Maybe we could even start to do what the Fawcett Society did and get a campaign going to disrupt the AGMs.
I cant wait another forty years.

And one of the consequences of women’s liberation is that women now have 2 – or even 3 jobs instead of 1 – or none – as the suffragettes did,

So none of us has the time to follow round the chair of the board, or to perform our own theatre acts, or even dig up football pitches – tempting though it may be!

We are all going to have to break the habits of a lifetime and settle for using our voices to interrupt, correct – and call men on any foolish utterings!

Let me tell you – it might be hard at first but – like our foremothers – I have found that causing such trouble can be great fun. And ever so rewarding.

It was DEEDS not words than women demanded from men when they fought for the vote. And I think that’s a slogan we can recycle for women on boards. No more excuses; just make an effort and share the power

I know that there are lots of skills that women have been taught for when they get on the board – but I have a few – that I wont divulge here – that involve a bit of civil disobedience – and which might just help them to get there.
Please see me afterwards.

* http://www.google.com.au/imgres?imgurl=http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2012/2284827064_f89c307927.jpg&imgrefurl=http://conservativeweasel.blogspot.com/2008/02/andrew-bolt-corner-for-comments.html&usg=__CZr1x0y33v1VbHsP78vcIXFXA2Q=&h=500&w=330&sz=94&hl=en&start=0&zoom=1&tbnid=2r5rtqusYId7IM:&tbnh=162&tbnw=114&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dandrew%2Bbolt%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26sa%3DN%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26biw%3D1187%26bih%3D913%26tbs%3Disch:1&um=1&itbs=1&iact=hc&vpx=516&vpy=56&dur=4666&hovh=276&hovw=182&tx=143&ty=90&ei=fzjGTPbnLpOesQOUn8mPDQ&oei=fzjGTPbnLpOesQOUn8mPDQ&esq=1&page=1&ndsp=29&ved=1t:429,r:2,s:0