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Networking through the glass ceiling

Claire Braund

National Management Committee for Women on Boards,


In the past two years the Women on Boards program has burgeoned from a small Sydney based group to a national network of 2,400 women. It has enlisted the financial, moral and in-kind support of a wide cross section of ASX top 100 companies, received national media attention and is firmly on the radar of State and Federal Governments and the corporate sector as an important forum for networking women into board positions.

This has been achieved with three national committee members, a part-time volunteer workforce based around a series of capital city events and an interactive online facility for Women on Boards at The latter has substantially increased the capacity of women to be involved, raised awareness of the program in all States and enabled it to be rolled out nationally.

A key feature of the network is its strategic leverage of online tools to enable self-help and participatory action for registered users to manage their own details and choose the functions they wish to access. As such, it is a communication and networking tool facilitating people coming together in a common space to share information about getting onto boards and organizing and managing face to face mentoring and networking activities.

Three key learnings: (1) The self-help nature of the network (‘helping people to help themselves’) fosters commitment to the program and ensures only keen and interested people take part; (2) A web based network is the most time and cost efficient means of developing a national program; (3) Focussing on and building sound processes from the bottom up results in achievable and positive outcomes.

Key words

Gender, networking, boards, mentoring, women


In 2005 women remain under represented in decision-making roles across all sectors of the Australian economy and society. Despite policies and proclamations that the numbers will increase, a wealth of leadership training programs, many women’s organisations and an abundance of well qualified women; numerous surveys, studies and reports show that the percentage of female directors on Australian boards remains at fewer than 10 per cent.

Research commissioned in 2003/2004 by Women on Boards of 412 Australian organisations, including 338 of the top 500 publicly listed companies and 31 rural organisations 1, showed:

  • 7% of all board members were women
  • 29% of boards had one female board member
  • 6% of boards had two
  • 2% of boards had three
  • 3% of public companies and associations had female Chairs
  • 37% of the first 175 public companies and 73% of the next 325 companies had no female board members
  • 31% of the rural boards had one or more female directors.

An accompanying qualitative survey of 60 chairs and company secretaries revealed that the main process for identifying prospective board members is referral by existing directors (78%) or the MD (perhaps put in what MD stands for) or CEO (57%) rather than through selection criteria or on a skills basis. Compatibility with existing ‘board culture’ was identified as important for selecting names to put forward to shareholders.1

The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency found in its 2004 census that for the top 200 companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange at 30 June 2004 2:

  • Women held 8.6% of Board Directorships (compared with 8.4% in 2003)
  • 47.1% of companies had no women directors (compared with 47.3% in 2003)
  • Only 11.5% of companies had 2 or more women directors in 2004 (compared with 10.7% in 2003)
  • Only 8.0% of companies had 25% or more women directors (compared with 5.9% in 2003)

The percentage of female directors is not expected to increase in the foreseeable future due to the infrequency of positions becoming genuinely vacant (as opposed to re-appointing existing board members).

An analysis of the profile of Australian company directors shows that in 2002 the average age of directors in the top 100 companies in Australia was 57. Male directors were significantly older than female directors, and non-executive directors were significantly older than executive directors.3 Ages ranged from 29 to 77 years. Coincidentally the latter figure is also the average life expectancy for an Australian male.4 The minimum retirement age in Australia is 55 - two years younger than the average age of directors.

Why Women on Boards?

The Women on Boards network was started in 2001 by a group of businesswomen who were inspired by the success of female athletes at the Sydney Olympics. Their key objective was to leverage this success to assist more women be considered for, and be appointed to, sports board positions.

The numbers of women on boards had remained static through much of the late 1980s and 1990s, a period also characterised by the establishment of a large number of professional women’s organisations. These included the National Foundation of Australian Women, Women in Finance, Women in IT, Women Lawyers, Zonta International, Australian Women in Business, Women Sport and Recreation, Australian Businesswomen’s Network, Business Professional Women, Chief Executive Women, Australian Women in Agriculture and the Foundation for Australian Agricultural Women.

Women on Boards is a broad national network focussed on how to mentor and network women into directorships, not a sector or issue based membership organisation. It partners with many professional women’s organisations as well as the corporate, government, not-for-profit and sports sectors to hold events, create opportunities for women and ensure a high level of dynamic interaction across its large and influential network.

How it developed?

The first Women on Boards networking event was held in Sydney in March 2001 and was a great success. More than 80 senior professional women gathered to meet with experienced board members who shared their knowledge, contacts and experiences. In 2002, five women were placed on sporting boards and a number of enquiries started to come in from boards interested in appointing women on to their boards.

With support from the Australian Government through its Office for Women and the corporate sector, Women on Boards expanded nationally in 2004/05, funding research, hosting high profile networking and mentoring events around Australia, including rural women in the program, targeting government and for-profit boards and improving its training and other services to women seeking directorships.

Moving the network online

The key enabler of this significant shift in capacity was the establishment of a website as an interactive self-help tool for aspirant female directors. This gave the program an instant national audience and the ability to expand rapidly beyond the geographic and economic barriers imposed by the limited number of volunteers and funding for the program. It provided a vehicle to leverage the substantial human investment already made in building the Women on Boards program and exponentially increased the power of the network.

The website brings the broad physical Women on Boards network together in a virtual space to share information and experiences about how to get onto boards. It creates a community of practice in which women who subscribe to the website can draw support, encouragement, advice and services from an established network with a common purpose.

The cohesive environment gives an otherwise loose network a strong identity. Being active in the online network is a quick conduit to establishing contact with other women seeking directorships, building associations to support and mentor women and grow the ‘new girls club’.

How it works?

The website is a self-help system where women register online, edit their contact details, build their resumes using a custom-designed form targeted towards applications for directorship positions, register and pay to attend mentoring and networking events, find and apply for vacant board positions, search for target boards, participate in online forums and share information. Women receive emails once or twice each month in the form of a brief newsletter outlining the latest postings, opportunities, seminars and boardroom lunches and other information and services available through the website.

Some of the networking offered through the website includes women receiving individual assistance with their resumes, being promoted within our network of corporate partners and support from a range of companies and individuals who offer discounted services to Women on Boards.

The Women on Boards network of 2400 is managed by a volunteer national management committee of three, with services provided on a part-time basis by a number of contractors and support from various sponsors and organizations who partner on events and various programs. This is possible because the online network enables administration to be kept to a minimum and effort devoted instead to developing strategic networks and alliances with directors on a range of corporate, not-for-profit and government boards and hosting events to bring aspirant directors into direct contact with existing board members.

Responsibility is placed on each user to ensure their details are correct, their resumes are up to date and that they login regularly to access new board positions or search the database of target boards to approach. All events are managed through the website and registrations will soon be entirely online through secure credit card transactions. All of these services are accessed from a single login point via the Welcome Page.

Figure 1. The Women on Boards Welcome Page provides access to a range of networking tools and services.

Roles in the organisation

There are two are administrators, who are members of the national management committee, who manage the content and users of the website. They are able to:

  • Search and sort the database using a range of fields and criteria
  • Create and communicate with groups within the network
  • View the online resumes and make them available to company’s seeking directors
  • Approve board positions to be posted to the group
  • Survey the registered users and edit the content on the website

In addition, within the Women on Boards network there are a number of user groups that are set up for various purposes:

  • Guest user – people registered with the website
  • Registered members – people who have filled in their CV
  • Management Committee – three people who share and access internal documents
  • WOB Perth Steering Committee – local state based group who access standard documents for the set up and delivery of events
  • Mentor Group – the directors who support Women on Boards and give their time at networking functions
  • Public Company Ready – the women who are identified through their CVs as being ready to move onto a public company board
  • Top Candidates who are Vic Based – women who can be communicated with about high level Victorian Government and other boards.

Figure 2. The Women on Boardssser groups, accessed from the user function on Welcome Page .

Distributed capacity

Women on Boards has evolved a set of human and interactive tools to distribute the capacity to build the network and influence of the program. At the core of the program is the group of company directors (male and female), aspirant female directors and corporate partners who are all regularly engaged by members of the national management committee. This face-to-face interaction is underpinned by the capacity of the website to extend this networking to everyone through reports, information, invitations and the opportunity for access and exposure to company’s seeking directors.


  • on Boards has been in a phase of rapid growth and development over the past two years. It has expanded from a loose but committed group of Sydney-based businesswomen and company directors who held a few experimental events to gauge interest, to a network of 2,400 active members who are working strongly together to improve the numbers of women on Australian company boards.
  • first stage of growth was some highly successful networking and mentoring functions in Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth in late 2003/2004 and early 2005. A carefully selected ‘A list’ of mentor directors and an interactive and work-style format gave Women on Boards a reputation as being the network to be part of if you wanted to start or develop your board career. Every one of these events was over-subscribed, with more than 300 at the Sydney, Brisbane and Perth events. This stage was also characterised by meetings with supportive female and male directors, becoming known as a high –value network in the company boardrooms and building the sponsorship base.
  • second stage of development started in June this year with the move away from high profile, hard work events to seminars/workshops, sector briefings and strategic boardroom lunches. The first tend to have up to 50 invitees to a boardroom of a well placed company to listen to a director and then work through the process of being selected for a board. Sector briefings involve women being briefed from a high level analyst on a specific investment sector, while the boardroom lunches place women ready to go onto boards at tables with directors of target companies. Many of these functions are hosted free of charge to Women on Boards as the value of the network speaks for itself.
  • major enabler of all of this activity has been the website which crystallised interest in the program and
  • viewed as a core part of the business, rather than an external communication tool. The human networking and program development is reflected at all times within the website. For example, a survey on the?Women on Boards database to which more than 20% of women responded, indicated that 51% of members have filled out their CV of which 53% noted that it helped to clarify their board objectives (Genroe 2005). There have been 32 board positions posted with the majority successfully filled by members of the Women on Boards network.

In the survey the respondents requested more communication and networking, access to a searchable list of boards to approach (subsequently implemented), corporate governance workshops and published mentor interviews and member showcases. They also identified areas for improving the usability of the website which Women on Boards has responded to by aggregating all of their online activities into a single access point and redesigning the forms and templates to better reflect the user experience.

A core aspect of the Women on Boards program is its ability to enable the small and mostly voluntary national management committee of three people to manage and interact with more than 2,400 subscribers from across Australia through the website. This has freed up time from administrative activities to the core business of the network, which is to enlist the financial, moral and in-kind support of a wide cross section of ASX top 100 companies, the wider corporate sector, State and Federal Governments and the national media, disseminate information and broker opportunities to network women into board positions.


Women on Boards has evolved from small beginnings to a strong and active community of practice. It has united women from across professions and sectors around a common purpose of seeking company directorships. This community of practice comes together in real and virtual space to further their objectives, support each other and build a solid presence that is already being felt in our company boardrooms. Women on Boards is identified and respected as a strong and credible network of women who wish to increase the balance of skills and experience on boards and who add real value to the boardroom team.


Delta Outlooks (2004), Practices and procedures relating to the appointment of directors in Australia and New Zealand, Women on Boards, Sydney,

Australian Government Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (2004), Australian Women In Leadership Census, Commonwealth Government, Canberra,

ISS Proxy Australia (2005), Board Composition and Non-Executive Director Pay in the Top 100 Companies: 2004, Australian Council of Super Investors, Melbourne,

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2001), Year Book Australia, Commonwealth Government, Canberra,

Genroe (2005), Women on Boards Member Survey, Genroe, Sydney,

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