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'Old boys' culture still dominates

Office staff on their way to work in Sydney -- but many women could still find their path to the top blocked.
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SYDNEY, Australia -- Australian management culture remains a "closed shop" that is controlled by an "old boys' network," a conference on senior women executives has heard.

According to research reported in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, women hold just 5.7 percent of boardroom positions among the top 500 Australian companies. Only two had female chief executives.

Jane Bridge of consultancy firm Boardroom Partners, who conducted the research, said tougher corporate governance rules had barely had an impact with just 120 women sitting on top boards, up from 116 a few years ago.

"It's pathetic," said Bridge, a former chief executive of the New South Wales Department of Women, told the Senior Women Executives and the Culture of Management conference.

"Chairmen are nervous about taking on people they don't know -- men or women. That has an impact on women. The average age of chairmen is 60-plus and a lot have never worked with women as peers. They don't know any.

"Everyone thought time would tell but we have enough data to know that's not the case."

According to Bridge's research, women held just 175 out of 3084 board seats. Most held a single directorship. Among the top 200 Australian companies, the situation was slightly better, with women's board representation reaching eight percent.

But Bridge said she had encountered some "absolute horror stories" of sexist behavior, and warned that most women directors were being appointed though "a wink and a nod."

In many cases, she said, chairmen were also found to be dismissive of female participation on issues such as mergers and capital expenditure.

Bridge attributed the scarcity of women in business at boardroom level to a lack of demand rather than a lack of supply, claiming that women were often overlooked because they were perceived to lack executive experience.

She also contrasted the situation in Australia with the managerial culture in the UK, where recent research showed that the number of women directors had risen from less than one in 10 to one in seven in the last five years.

But whereas British trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt had championed the issue in the UK, Bridge said the cause of female executives in Australia lacked state or federal government support.

In a survey commissioned by business advisory firm Grant Thornton earlier this year, Australia ranked 12th in a global list detailing the number of women as a percentage of senior managerial positions, with 22 percent.

Russia topped the list with 42 percent, while New Zealand was fourth with 31 percent.

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