7 November 2012




SLOAN: Minister, good morning.

WONG: Good morning, Alex. I thought you might start by asking me what time I’m getting home tonight (laughs).

SLOAN: (laughs) It was my final question. It was. I had it there, Penny Wong. So, tell me, what time will you go home?

WONG: I think my flight lands at quarter past eight. So I suppose that’ll be about nine o’clock.

SLOAN: (laughs) And tell me, will there be a little bit of work done on a laptop?

WONG: We’ll see. If we get it all done we might relax on the flight.

SLOAN: I’m wondering about work-life balance.

WONG: Yeah, we’re not so good on that.

SLOAN: (laughs) Alright, taking in the whole family picture there, Penny Wong. But to women on boards – and you say: ‘let’s not ignore half the talent pool’.

WONG: I think it’s a pretty rational proposition, isn’t it? If half our population is women, and women are underrepresented in particular positions then we have to do something about changing that, both for equity reasons, but also for economic reasons. Because I don’t think any society, and particularly an advanced economy like ours, can afford to ignore half of our talent pool.

SLOAN: I gave the figures of women making up 14.6 per cent of board positions, which is up from 8.8 per cent in 2008. But has the trend stalled?

WONG: You’d have to say, even if we look at movements from year to year – and I think it’s disappointing that there’s been a slight backwards step between last year and this year – still, if we’re at around 14 per cent, there’s obviously a problem, isn’t there?

I mean, if you’ve got only 14 per cent of the board positions of our top companies filled by women, and you accept the proposition that women are as capable and as able as men, then clearly, there’s something else holding women back.

And so what we’re launching today in BoardLinks is a practical initiative to try and remedy that and remedy the inequality that still exists, to a lesser degree, on women on boards in the public sphere.

SLOAN: What is the ‘something else’? What’s holding women back?

WONG: There’s a lot of theories, aren’t there? I was very focused when working with Julie Collins, the Minister for the Status of Women, on this, and the business community, on working out what are the practical things we can do. For example, one of the ‘excuses’ that’s often put is that women don’t have enough board experience. And it seemed to me that that was somewhere that Government could have a role, because we obviously have a lot of different boards.

We are on track to increase the number of women on government boards to 40 per cent by 2015. And as part of that, what we can try and do is increase, I suppose, the ‘pool’ of women who’ve had board experience, so that the private sector do have a greater pool of people – of women – with board experience from which to choose further directors.

SLOAN: Is part of the problem that women don’t want to do it?

WONG: I always worry about people suggesting that. Because when I talk to women in the business community and when I talk to women in the community more generally, that’s not a proposition that’s put to me very often, in fact, quite the opposite. There are a lot of women in the business community who say to me: ‘Look, I’d like a position, I’d like to do this, but I haven’t been able to get a guernsey’.

SLOAN: But the whole ‘juggle’ thing – which I’m about to talk about with Richard Dennis – does it really kick in?

WONG: We can do better in terms of working families as a community, but I think the point is, when you’re talking about boards, they’re usually part-time positions – that’s probably something you could do even if you did have family responsibilities. And I think if we’ve got issues with promoting people on the basis of merit, then we need to try and address the issues that are preventing that.

SLOAN: What about the ‘old boys club’?

WONG: (laughs) I think all of us know in life who you know helps, doesn’t it? For both men and women. But there are also a lot of men out there in initiatives in the business community who have engaged in and who are championing women getting onto boards. And I’m very pleased we’ve got both women and men in terms of the Champions we’re announcing today for the BoardLinks network.

SLOAN: You say that increasing the number of women on boards is good for business and good for the economy. What’s the proof of that?

WONG: I think it’s simply a question of merit. I think if you accept that half the population is as able as the other half, and only 14 per cent of them are on boards, then clearly we’re not tapping into as much of half the available talent pool as we should be.

SLOAN: But have we got, kind of, cost-benefit analysis, or have we got economic figures on it?

WONG: Certainly there have been various studies – Credit Suisse is one that comes to mind – that look at the performance of listed companies that have more diverse boards, including women, against those that don’t and suggest boards with more diverse representation on their boards do better.

But I think it just comes down to logic, really. Do you really think only 14 per cent of board positions should be filled by women? Do you think that that’s a true reflection of merit? I just don’t accept that.

SLOAN: I think that study pointed to the fact that women may be tougher, and because they’re not so linked in with the old boys’ networks they can make tougher decisions about who stays and who goes – Penny Wong?

WONG: That’s a tough question, isn’t it? I always resile from getting too much into broad statements about ‘women are like this’ and ‘men are like this’ because in my life – my political life and work life and personal life – those statements are often found to not be accurate in the particular. But you bring different perspectives.

I was an advocate, for example, of affirmative action in terms of the Labor Party putting women into Parliament and the proposition there was that I think a Parliament does better when it better reflects the composition of the community and the diversity of the community.

I think diversity does bring different perspectives. You look at a problem from different angles and you sometimes see solutions which aren’t there. So that’s the approach I take and I suspect it’s the sort of approach most people would agree with.

SLOAN:  And under your Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Act you will require business to report on the numbers and pay of male and female employees. Where is that up to?

WONG: That’s being handled by Julie [Collins], who is the Minister for the Status of Women. She’s done a very good job in steering those changes through the consultation processes and the Parliament. Fundamentally, that’s about trying to get people to think about why it is that they might be promoting men rather than women, and what the opportunities are. Most of these policies really are, I suppose, triggers to get people to try and think a little differently.

SLOAN: But as I understand it you want companies to start reporting from April 1, so is that to give, kind of, hard data?

WONG: I think hard data is very good. I think hard data against performance is a good thing. We do that in other parts of business, we do that in the Federal Government, and I think it’s a good thing to get better data about what’s happening. What’s the old adage? ‘You can’t manage what you don’t measure, and if you don’t measure, you don’t know what you’re managing’.

SLOAN: Penny Wong is with me, the Minister for Finance and Deregulation. Tell me about the BoardLinks program.

WONG: This is what we’re announcing today. It’s essentially a network that will try and get more women into board positions. It will also provide mentoring and training and networking opportunities. So it’s about trying to get more women into the pool of available board nominees so we can get more women on boards, both in the public sector, but also get them more board ready for the private sector.

SLOAN: A couple of texts, Penny Wong. Les says: “Put the best on boards. Picking a woman just because they are a female is wrong”.

WONG: I’m really happy to answer that. I agree with that person – you should put the best people onto boards. But is he or she really saying that only 14 per cent of women in this country are the best?

SLOAN: Karen has taken another text, saying: “All for quotas for women on boards. If I waited for the men in my life to get around to doing things I’d be waiting forever. Sometimes they just have to be told,” which is a huge generalisation, perhaps. I don’t know how you’d greet that, Penny Wong.

WONG: I prefer to do what we’re doing, which is practical strategies to get more women in rather than imposing quotas. I think we should try and encourage people to change, and organisations to change.

SLOAN: Yes. I heard the Prime Minister being asked about the misogynist speech, and how that was greeted by other leaders from around the world. And she spoke to Samantha Hawley about that. Is this part of the Government’s narrative now?

WONG: Actually, I’ve been working with Julie [Collins] on this for some time, well before the very good speech by the Prime Minister. We’ve had a target on Government boards of 40 per cent by 2015. But this really grew out of engagement with a whole range of other organisations in the business community to try and work out how it is we can interface better with them to get more women on boards across public and private sectors.

SLOAN: Penny Wong, thanks so much for joining me. Leave the laptop, perhaps, off, once the plane lands.

WONG: I’ll see about that…

SLOAN: And you did choose a very nice name for your daughter (laughs).

WONG: Yes, I have to say, I shall remember your name always (laughs).

SLOAN: Thanks Penny Wong.