First published on the Institute of Community Directors Australia website.
Women make up half of the world’s population. Yet last year in Australia alone, the number of women on the boards of companies around the country declined. Add in additional intersections of identity – race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability – and women, particularly young women, are rarely even considered for these leadership positions.
There are so many reasons for this disparity in leadership representation. Part of it comes down to gender stereotyping often portraying women as subordinate or passive, therefore not fitting the mould of a traditional (patriarchal) ‘leader’. Another is that people in positions of power often act as gatekeepers and look to hire directors who share the same identities and experiences as them. However, research shows there are economic, social, governance and productivity gains associated with increasing women’s representation in leadership roles across the community.
Diverse representation leads to more informed group decision-making. Simply put, boards that are more diverse are more likely to overcome stale ways of thinking and sharpen their performance. Representation is also a human right and it’s important that as a society, we have leaders and leadership structures that are representative of the communities they serve.
“Boards make decisions that affect the lives of young people every day, yet the average age of non-executive directors in Australia is 63.8. Age diversity is important to help ensure that a diverse range of views and perspectives are represented.”Julia Goodall, aged 30, YWCA Australia Vice-Chair
We know that it’s not easy to do it alone – challenging a whole established system is a daunting task! So we’ve compiled five top tips for young women and girls hoping to become board members, with the input of the YWCA Young Women’s Council and other young woman board members.
Find a cause you are passionate about
When deciding on a cause, ask yourself where you most want to create change and where you think you can contribute the most. The key thing is that you feel passionate about it. Surround yourself with people who are just as passionate about the cause as you. Listen to where they want to see change and start thinking on how you can be that change.
And then get involved with that cause – join as a member, volunteer your skills, build your networks! Find an organisation who is doing really great work in that area that you would be proud to join. Or if you like a challenge, find an organisation that isn’t doing so well in that area, where you feel like you can make a big difference in the way they work.
“I volunteered for a number of youth-led organisations as a teenager and young adult. This gave me a great opportunity to develop and find my own leadership style amongst peers. After several years working in youth development and social impact design, I wanted to find a volunteering role where I could contribute skills I’d learnt to causes that mattered to me.”Julia Goodall, aged 30, YWCA Australia Vice-Chair
Find the right mentor
A mentor will be there to guide you, share their experience and provide advice. Find a mentor that works with you to enhance, develop and build on your leadership and governance skills and talents. Ensure that you are both open to sharing ideas and new concepts with each other – they will have as much to learn from you as you will from them!
You can find mentors in many different ways. Don’t be shy about directly approaching a woman you admire who is working in a field you are passionate – most women who have climbed their career ladder are ready to extend a hand to others working their way up. Or why not join your sector’s networking events and reach out to official mentoring programs? If you are a teenaged girl or young woman still in school, there are also dedicated mentoring programs such as YWCA’s Youth Frontiers that can help you on your leadership journey.
“It’s really important to have a support network around you to help you grow. I’ve improved immensely as a director through the support of my mentors and groups that include experienced directors who are women. Through supporting one another, we have encouraged each other to keep speaking up and to continue developing my critical eye in the board room, and it’s grown my confidence immensely.”Molly George, aged 27, YWCA Australia board member
Fill in any gaps in your governance knowledge
It’s okay to not know everything! You might dread public speaking, or maybe you’ve never had to decipher a balance sheet before. Recognise where you might need some additional coaching or education and find opportunities to fill those gaps. Ask a lot of questions (don’t be shy!) and read as much as you can.
Courses such as YWCA Australia’s SHE Leads program or AICD Foundations of Directorship and ICDA Diploma of Business (Governance) can help to address general leadership and governance skills, and there are a multitude of half-day or full-day workshops that can give you crash courses in finance, public speaking, professional writing, and more.
Recognise your own unique set of skills and knowledge
Be practical about what you have to offer to the cause you have chosen. Perhaps you’ve never sat on a board before and don’t work in a stereotypical leadership position. But don’t downplay your unique set of skills and knowledge, you have a lot to offer!
Perhaps you are the only young woman working in a male-dominated industry and your contribution is what can help organisations aim for gender parity. Or maybe you have direct experience of the discrimination experienced by migrants and can advise your local government on engagement strategies for community integration. How you utilise your skills and share your knowledge is what sets you apart and makes you unique.
“As a female leader working in the construction industry, I’ve found many of the skills I’ve learnt over time have been useful in other parts of my life. When I started in my trade 8 years ago, I had little to do with management or governance. But over the years I’ve learnt that many skillsets are transferable and if you can dig deep and see what your unique skills are experiences entail, you’ll be surprised at how qualified you really are.”Taylor Perrin, age 25, 2018 NAWIC Australian Tradeswomen of the Year
Imagine yourself as a marketable product. Make a list of your best qualities and what sets you apart from others. Polish up your resume for applications for board positions, making sure you’re including these skills and qualities. Remember to be confident and sure about what you have to offer, and how having you on a board or in a leadership position can benefit the cause you’re passionate about. You’ve got this!
Go on – take these tips and use them in smashing glass ceilings, the patriarchy, and gender stereotypes!
Here at YWCA Australia, we are all about advocating for, and providing opportunities for young women to develop their leadership identity and pathway. We are committed to intergenerational leadership and raising the voices of young women and girls and supporting them in their leadership journey through life.
To help support the leadership of young women, we have just launched the YWCA Australia Board Traineeship Program. This is an amazing opportunity for two young women (aged under 30) to undertake a twelve-month governance traineeship with the YWCA Board. This includes enrolment in the three-day governance course, mentoring with an established board member, observing board meetings in action, and opportunities to present to YWCA membership.
This program is a great opportunity for young women wanting to develop practical and strategic governance skills in a professional, supportive and feminist environment.
Applications close 11pm, 29 March 2020. Deadline extended to 11pm, 5 April 2020!
 The Guardian ‘Number of women on boards of Australia’s top companies falls’ October 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/oct/31/number-of-women-on-boards-of-australias-top-companies-falls