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A bill introduced by independent senator Nick Xenophon which seeks to legislate 40 per cent representation by women on government boards, is now working it’s way through the government system. It is important not to become prematurely excited by this prospect; the coalition hasn’t given it a tick. Nor however, has it been publicly argued against.

This may be because this 40 per cent quota isn’t radically different to what’s already in place, from a practical perspective. Thanks to the previous government’s policy to implement a 40 per cent target for female membership of federal government boards- the number is already pretty close at 38 per cent.

This begs the question, why legislate?According to Xenophon there is evidence that the proportion of women on government boards has slipped since 2013, when the policy was first in place. He argues there is a real risk that unless legally fortified this number could slip further. In 2012-2013, 13 of 18 government boards met the target (40% of each gender with 20% wiggle room) but in 2013-2014 only nine boards met this goal. Furthermore, the biggest decline in the number of women on boards since 2013, was in the Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolio, where 41.2% female board representation plunged to 29.4%.

“ What concerns us is what happens in 2015 and 2016- unless attention is paid to arresting this decline it could very easily blow out to 6-10% where it will become exponentially harder to arrest” Xenophon’s associate and executive director of the Women on Boards committee, Claire Braund said earlier this year.

However the main purpose of this legislation is for this 40 per cent quota to have a flow on effect within Australia’s leading corporations. Currently less than 20 per cent of directors in Australia’s top 200 listed companies are women, while some companies have no women on their board at all. By legislating gender targets, the government creates a role model and template for the rest of business. If government boards run smoothly with appropriate gender representation, it paves the way for the corporate world to do the same.

Numerous groups and organisations have emerged over the past decade to address this issue and have been campaigning for improvements, which has yielded some results. By the end of 2014, women were occupying almost 300 seats in ASX 200 boardrooms (19.3 per cent of all directors). However a review of the evidence from overseas strongly suggests that quotas are one of the few practical strategies known to produce rapid substantial change, especially when the numerical representation of women is the outcome measure. According to ‘The Conversation’s’ author Jennifer Whelan, Norwegian boards rose from 9% to the mandated 40% within the required five years, when the Government put in place a similar quota to the one suggested by Xenophon.

Consequently, approving Xenaphon’s bill may be the catalyst Australia needs to replicate gender diversity in not just the government, but across all corporations. Regardless VM Learning will be eagerly awaiting to see how this bill goes in parliament.