Aussie Super chair puts managers ‘on notice’ over gender equality

by John Kavanagh

Australian institutional investors are moving on from addressing gender equality issues in their own organisations to asking the same questions of the investment managers they work with as well as the companies they invest in. The gender issue has been shifted up a notch from companies to fund managers.

Heather Ridout, the chair of AustralianSuper, said this was the new frontier in gender equity – investors putting questions to investment managers and investee companies about the roles of women in their management teams.

“I see us putting companies on notice over this,” she said at a gathering in Sydney on International Women’s Day last Thursday. Ridout spoke at the ASX’s “Ringing of the Bell” for Gender Equity event on International Women’s Day.

The ASX launched a gender equity report, produced by the “Sustainable Stock Exchanges” initiative of the United Nations, which shows that 22 per cent of ASX 200 companies have women on their boards (up from 15 per cent in 2012) and 5 per cent of all ASX-listed companies have female CEOs.

Another speaker at the ASX event, Myer Family Company chief executive Danielle Press, said the business community had “moved the needle” but female representation needed to be higher still. Only 6 per cent of directors on board of companies outside the ASX 500 are women.

“You need women to make up one-third of a board to make a difference. Investors are asking companies about this and we know that capital allocation drives company behavior,” Press said.

Ridout said AustralianSuper had recently written to 15 ASX companies asking them why they didn’t have any women on their boards. “And if not, why not?” she said.

Kirsten Mander, the chair of the International Women’s Development Agency, said international research was clear about the positive impact gender equity had on corporate performance and risk management.

“Our duty is to act as a fiduciary first, then we look at other issues. We have been disappointed with how hard it has been to engage with investment managers on this issue,” Mander said.

Ridout said that when AustralianSuper decided to develop an in-house investment management capability one of its goals was to have as many women involved as possible.

“It was not easy to recruit so we started a cadet program to grow our own. Our head of international equities is a woman,” she said.

Press said: “It is time for investors to ask the mangers these questions and the managers must respond.”