Samuel recoils at 'girls' club' around banks and business

Ian Rogers Other topics
Now heading Suncorp’s board, Christine McLoughlin is also chair and co-founder of the Minerva Network, helping the careers of women in business.
Now heading Suncorp’s board, Christine McLoughlin is also chair and co-founder of the Minerva Network, helping the careers of women in business.

The Financial Review has the story on an alleged “girls' club” obstructing the careers of younger women in finance this morning, and it’s a corker.

Graeme Samuel, the former ACCC boss and himself a leading product of an equally unsatisfactory “men’s club”, is the iconic name throwing this commentary around.

Samuel’s remarks at an AFR summit in Sydney yesterday denigrating networked, high level, experienced women (many of whom are making an imprint in the challenging and male dominated arena of banking, especially on bank boards) look sexist.

Commonwealth Bank and Suncorp are the best examples to begin to analyse his provocative claims.
Half of CBA’s ten directors are women, an industry first (for big banks) achieved at the beginning of the year. Professor Genevieve Bell - a cultural anthropologist, technologist and futurist who worked for Intel for decades - was the woman who helped CBA reach this milestone.

At Suncorp, four out of nine directors are women and Suncorp chair Christine McLoughlin is an ardent advocate of affirmative action as chair and co-founder of the Minerva Network, helping the careers of women in business.

Let’s humour Samuel and call it a club; Minerva’s mission “is to develop a network of experienced businesswomen to mentor professional sportswomen as they navigate their challenges on and off the field”.

The CBA and Suncorp boards are examples of the data likely to be hurled back at Graeme Samuel today by many feminists and advocates.

Chief Executive Women, which “represents more than 300 of Australia's most senior women leaders,” is the type of self-help in business organisation whose activities could be twisted either way around Samuel's view.  Women got organised decades ago and militant action has evolved in the hard-to-crack echelons of the elite.

Women in FINSIA, an energetic section of the main professional association for financial staff, supplied fresh data on the place of females in the industry on International Women’s Day three weeks ago.

In financial services, “the pay gap is almost 10 per cent higher than the national average,” FINSIA reported to members.

“While 55 per cent of the 166,000-plus people employed in the sector are female, the gender pay gap stands at 30 per cent.”

A separate and more detailed survey of more than 700 industry employees (of all genders) found “men are still earning 21 per cent more than women and a gender pay gap remains across every industry”.

“Fewer than a fifth of all Australian CEOs are women and female representation on boards is just over a quarter.”

Even if Samuel’s views are heartfelt and based on his knowledge of the inner workings of big business, the trend of women occupying jobs once reserved for males seem to support a different story, of the men’s club opening up and women (or some anyway) achieving their ambitions.

But we digressed; back to cribbing the AFR article. This is Samuel’s key quote, from an article consigned to page two (of all places) in this morning’s Financial Review (though it was prominent on the AFR website early today):

"There is a wall that needs a nuclear bomb to smash down the impenetrable wall around the female club of directors.”

This ‘club’ of female directors Samuel described as “absolutely worse than the male directors’ club.”

Graeme Samuel, of course, is an icon of the traditionally male world of directorships.

‘Mr Connected’ by any measure, Samuel’s CV boasts all the Australian substitutes for a knighthood.

A former commissioner of the Australian Football League, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2008 and no more than two years later elevated to Companion of the Order of Australia in the Queens's Birthday Honours list, “for services to the community, public administration, economic reform and corporate law.” Thank former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, among others, for Samuel receiving those two gongs.

As head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission from July 2003 to July 2011, Samuel gained respect and notoriety, the latter abetting his courage yesterday at the AFR confab amid a throng of his much younger “peers” and successors.

Back to his inflammatory remarks as reported in the paper.

The AFR's banking editor James Eyers and economics writer John Kehoe have the byline, so maybe Samuel does have women on the boards of Australia’s biggest banks in mind as centrepieces of his theorised “club”.

The newspaper reports that Samuel said: “some of the well-known names within the top league of 30 female directors ‘have some record, but I’m not sure the record in many cases is properly deserved’.

“He said the club was locking out a bigger group of potentially high quality women who were struggling to break into the scene.”