Positive discrimination won’t help women: Rio

One of Australia’s senior businesswomen says a move to force companies to appoint women to their boards will create a culture of compliance, mediocrity, and resentment.

Responding to a call from the country’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, to consider implementing quotas as a "temporary special measure" to increase female board numbers, Rio Tinto's Joanne Farrell warned positive discrimination could have negative consequences.

"I don't know any woman who wants a promotion or a board position based on gender," she said.

"Positive discrimination has some very negative connotations and, at its worst, can impact opportunities for women if an individual gets a role based on their gender rather than their merits. Positive discrimination can create a culture of compliance, of resentment and, at its worst, mediocrity."

Farrell, Rio's global head of health, safety, environment and communities, said it would be more beneficial to women if opportunities were created and attitudes adjusted, including the perception women had to "become one of the boys" to succeed.

"I believe market conditions will influence change, not quotas or legislation. I believe that business drivers are the most effective instrument of change," she said.

The West Australian reported Broderick said progress on getting women on to the boards of Australia's biggest firms had "stalled" in recent years.

"At that point you have to ask, well, is it time for some kind of more mandatory systemic intervention," she said.

"The fact is quotas are a debate that polarises people, both men and women, because not all women are in favour of quotas.

"There's a strong view that if we introduce a quota, women will just be there because of a quota. My view firmly is that the role of a quota is to uncover women's merit.

"Quotas are a temporary special measure, they're a jolt to a misaligned system, they're necessary for a transition phase where we end up in a situation where all the great talent in Australia is available to the boards in Australia."

A new report and strategy paper released this month tackles the stereotypes around the nature of ‘women’s work’ in mining, utility and construction sectors.

Mining has particularly failed to increase female participation due to long working hours and lack of flexibility and work-life balance.

“This is particularly true for roles where workers need to fly in to remote locations,” the report said.

“There is also a perception that organisations in these industries fail to offer workplace facilities and uniforms that are inclusive of women.”

The report, titled ‘Women in male-dominated industries: a toolkit of strategies’, said women comprise of 45.7 per cent of the overall workforce but they represent only 15.1 per cent in mining and 22.6 per cent in utility companies such as energy and engineering.

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