The importance of strong female representation on any board has fueled much debate in recent years, especially if it's the board of a sporting organisation.
Major sporting codes in Australia still show a low level of female representation in the boardroom ranging from zero to just above 30 percent, both in club administration and at the top echelons of the governing bodies.
So the question remains, is the growth of representation fast enough and are the appointments for the right reasons in an executive arena historically seen as a male bastion more than any other area of business?
Pip Marlow: MD of Microsoft Australia, one of three women on the ARU board
Pip Marlow is the Managing Director of Microsoft Australia and is one of three women on the Board of the Australian Rugby Union (ARU). She believes the key to good decision making at the top is about merit and diversity.
“I believe in meritocracy,” states Marlow.
“Meritocracy has so many biases in it that sometimes it’s not about the right person for the job but it’s the right team for the task. When you’re building a team you want different strengths – you want a team that is great at many things.”
The ARU appointed Marlow to the Board early this year joining Elizabeth Broderick (former Sex Discrimination Commissioner) and Ann Sherry (CEO of Carnival Australia) as the female representation at the table – adding to the variety of experience and voices in the mix.
Marlow says she is often still bemused by the implication standards need to be dropped if women are to be considered for a place at the top table.
“For me there’s an interesting conversation that often happens when people talk about getting more women on Boards, people say ‘but we can’t drop the bar’,” she said.
“I’m not asking to drop the bar. What I am saying is please think about meritocracy.”
So is it a case of casting a wider net to get a greater gender mix among those vying for an executive role? Marlow doesn’t believe so.
“It is casting the net wide but it is also opening your eyes wide to see what’s in front of you. So I think the excuse of saying we need to look wider doesn’t always hold true.
“It’s about appreciating the differences in value that people bring to the table. And that’s not just gender - that’s race, religion, sexual orientation and diversity of thought because people have got to welcome and value those differences. Then if you add that to casting the net wider I think diversity could flourish more,” said Marlow.
The ARU now boasts three of Australia’s most influential business women as members of the Board – a situation ARU boss Bill Pulver has promoted as part of the organisation’s strategic plan to engage more women and girls at every level of the sport but especially through leading from the front at Board level.
“I have to acknowledge Bill Pulver at the ARU: he is not doing tokenism he is really passionate about diversity on multiple levels,” said Marlow.
“He understands, in the world of rugby, that globally over half a million women are joining this sport per year. It is the biggest growth opportunity for rugby investing in women and he sees the value of having diversity on the Board.”
“We need great leaders and great people setting the tone and the bar saying diversity is required, not just because it is the right thing to do but because it’s good for business - it is good for the sport, it is good for business,” she said.
Marina Go, Chair at NRL club Wests Tigers, recently commented on the gender issue at executive level as being more about power protecting power in her experience, having survived what she referred to as the politics of the sport at the organisational level.
Go was criticised, among other things, for having no rugby league knowledge.
Marlow says she understands the issues Go has faced and her subsequent comments because often in business there are people who are stuck in the past and only value one way of doing things.
Marlow herself admits to being a passionate fan of rugby union but emphasises she is also a businesswomen with a range of expertise to bring to the decision-making process.
“In the rugby world should it only be players on the board? I don’t have to play the game - that’s not my role. We need people thinking about (things like) how we grow that business, how we engage fans and how technology can help do that,” said Marlow.
“But there are certain people who think it should only look and feel one way and that to me is about having the courage to look forward versus looking back.”
While the ARU is viewed by many as the ultimate male bastion of sport, Marlow underlines the fact that she has had many positive responses to her appointment and involvement in the organisation.
“My experiences have been exceedingly positive from the members of the ARU Board and I’ve met others like the Reds Board and the Rebels Board. I’ve also had a great reception from the players – one of the first people to reach out to me was Stephen Moore – so my experience, candidly, has been fantastic and has been of being welcomed into that community,” she said.
While acceptance at the top level is crucial, it is also important to have the confidence of those involved down the line, at club level and at the grassroots of the game, where traditional thinking perhaps holds a little firmer.
Marlow is a strong advocate for grassroots rugby and has informed the ARU that this is an area she would like to engage in.
As a parent, a mother of two girls, Marlow says she is now more conscious of the options and opportunities in sport for females at all levels.
“I think we need to build a great pipeline for all parts of our rugby community - male, female, Sevens and XVs – and that’s an area that I want to spend more time on. It’s an area I’m passionate about and want to be involved in and to understand what we need to be doing as a code and in the community – growing and being more connected – to be the sport of choice for young men and women in this country.”
The ARU has had a strong year on many fronts with women's rugby with the success of the Sevens squad – both in the World Series securing the number one world ranking and winning Gold at the Olympics last week. Add to that the corporate support for the development of the Women’s XVs form of the game – particularly for the Wallaroos - by another leading Australian business woman in Josephine Sukkar, and there is definitely a trend happening.
Point of Difference
There is increasing evidence that women at board level introduce a different perspective to the discussion, asking different questions and opening up debate, but Marlow says this is not just about gender when looking to make smart business decisions.
“My observation of the (ARU) Board is it’s not just about diversity of gender, it’s about a diversity in thinking and thinking styles; and we debate – we don’t always agree but I think that’s really healthy,“ she said.
“I think the environment that has been created on the ARU Board is that it is a very safe place for healthy debate and discussion.”
Marlow credits coming from a background where you hold the bar high pushing and challenging people and ultimately bringing a different type of discussion to the table with this diversity at Board level therefore creating better decision-making.
“We come in with a perspective and then we challenge, debate and then come out with the best decision,” she said.
Marlow believes the discussion around women on boards and in executive roles is now more visible than ever before.
“Be it in the paper or on social media – the discussion around gender equity is as broad and as loud as I’ve ever seen it. I would still say the pace of change is not where it needs to be. I think we have to see more executive commitment – it starts at the top,” she said.
Enabling this change at the top is more about a level of commitment and accountability in creating diversity and inclusion in the workplace because, according to Marlow, people need to be just as much the focus for a successful business as are the tangible fiscal aspects.
“Liz (Broderick) has done a great job on Champions of Change and Bill’s part of the Champions of Change in sport – but we need to see across the board a far bigger focus and real commitment to driving that change,” she said.
Marlow is also a strong subscriber to the philosophy of inclusion.
“I want to create an inclusive workplace where everybody can come to work and do the best job, not regardless of who they are but because of who they are.”
Having this kind of thinking at the top table of a sporting organisation that has traditionally been seen as a male bastion can only help keep the debate around diversity at executive level healthy – the fact it is being driven by a woman is even healthier.
This week, the ARU is holding its annual Bledisloe Cup Festival - Women in Business and Rugby lunch at which there will be a panel discussion on the ‘Champions of Change’ initiative created by Broderick during her time as Sex Discrimination Commissioner, addressing the issue of diversity and inclusion at the top tables of business and one which Marlow acknowledges the ARU has embraced.
“We’re trying to make sure women feel connected to the code. We know that they’re there – we know we have female fans. It’s also more that we make men understand that women have a place and a role to play in the code – then that’s good for everybody,” said Marlow.
On the back of the Aussie Sevens Women’s success on the world stage this year, the ARU will be keen to spread the word about how rugby is embracing women at all levels of the game – from the field to the boardroom.