The four main Australian banks and a huge financial services company, AMP, have been rocked by revelations that some of their financial advisors had been over-charging their customers to the tune of millions of dollars. It appears that a culture of treating customers as suckers was endemic in parts of these organisations. Heads rolled after forensic interrogations of senior executives summoned to a royal commission into Australian banking.

The subsequent “under-a-cloud” resignation of Catherine Brenner as chairwoman of the AMP Board has raised the issue of the wisdom of having targets and quotas for the number of women appointed to boards. Of course, women should be on boards, but are targets and quotas the most appropriate way to achieve that?

Janet Albrechtsen, writing in The Weekend Australian, characterized Diane Smith-Gander, who was president of the advocacy group Chief Executive Women, as “the queen bee of female quota activism” and challenged her assertion that Australians “have moved past the idea that quotas are wrong.”

Albrechtsen outlined Brenner’s qualifications and professional experience and compared them very unfavourably with those of a much more qualified man passed over for the appointment as chair of the AMP board. Albrechtsen concluded that Brenner’s appointment resulted from “putting gender ahead of skills” and questions whether that should happen.

Smith-Gander is reported as describing asking that question as a “slur”.

A number of issues have arisen in the wake of the resignation of several women from AMP’s board. Should we have targets and quotas for women on boards? Is the tactic of “the conversation is over” being used to make what still needs to be an open question a reality? Is affirmative action (discrimination in favour of women as an historically discriminated-against group) regarding board appointments justified? What are the risks, harms and benefits of the available courses of action and to whom? Whose interests should be taken into account and whose excluded in assessing harms and benefits?

Good facts are necessary for good ethics and good public and social policy. Here are some facts we need to gather: Are women being unfairly overlooked? Are targets and quotas for women unfair to men? Are the processes used in choosing board members ethical? Do women make a positive difference to the “ethical tone” of a board or do they become pseudo men? Are women token appointments whose voices are not heard even when they speak? Does the discrepancy in board numbers result from women being overlooked for senior company roles at an earlier stage of their careers? Might boards which know they have ethical problems appoint women as chairs in order to appear more ethical? Why did three women resign from the AMP board, but no men?

And so on. I cannot answer these questions, but they and others need to be addressed.

Now, I would like to speak just personally.

When Michael Cook asked me if I had considered the issues raised by having targets and quotas for women on boards, my response was that I don’t feel I’ve had a struggle to be recognized. In fact, I’m constantly surprised at how much recognition I receive and, when I was younger never, in my wildest dreams, would I have hoped that the professional career I’ve had both as an academic and in the public square was possible.

A small current example: just after I received Michael’s email, I had an email from a woman academic in Jerusalem saying she’d been following my “thought” since 2007 and loved my book “The Ethical Canary” and she would like to make those thoughts available by writing an article about them in Hebrew.

Even after 40 years as an academic, I am still very surprised by such requests and felt deeply honoured and grateful.

I recognize, however, that far from all women, indeed very few, have been as privileged and fortunate as I have and despite never having felt that I was a victim of sex discrimination, perhaps, for instance, I have been the subject of tokenism.

One time I can recall recognizing that was a possibility was in the early 1980s when I was acting as a consultant to the Law Reform Commission of Canada on their “Protection of Life” project. At the time, the late Antonio Lamer, later the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and a very masculine man, was the president of the Commission and was chairing the meeting at which I was the only woman participant. It was late in the afternoon and everyone wanted to leave, many for the airport, but I refused to accept the consensus the men had reached.

Finally, in frustration because they could not seem to see why I thought that they were wrong, I said, “Well, you are not hearing what I am saying, since you only appointed me because you needed a token woman!” There was a dead silence. Tony leaned back in his chair, stared at the ceiling, creating a long pause, then fixed his eyes on me and said in a low growl, “Margo, if we’d wanted a token woman we could have found someone a hell of a lot easier to deal with than you.”

Another negative experience was when WorldCom and Enron were embroiled in ethical scandals at the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis. I was invited to New York to speak about ethics to a large gathering of senior business executives. I recall the audience as consisting entirely of men, all wearing grey suits, with very defensive body language – their arms were tightly crossed and legs entwined. I experienced them as the most hostile audience I’d ever encountered, whether or not that impression was correct. My conclusion was that the last topic they wanted to know about was ethics. Whether a male ethicist would have elicited the same response is an interesting question.

I’ve also found, as have many women, that when, at a meeting, I propose an idea that is later adopted, it is often attributed to one of the male participants, but not only men do this, women are also guilty.

And I believe that I have experienced salary discrimination. Many years ago, and before most organizations were concerned about equal pay for women for equal work to men’s, McGill University decided to conduct an enquiry to see if women faculty members were unjustifiably being paid less than “equivalent” men. Each woman who chose to participate could choose a male colleague with whom she would be compared.

The man I chose and I were both associate professors. I was a member of two faculties, my male colleague one. I had two professional qualifications, my colleague one. I had a doctoral degree, he had a masters. We both had foreign law degrees, but I also had a Canadian degree. I was a member of the Quebec Bar, he was not. He had around six years more teaching experience than I had – he ten, I four. I had 12 years’ professional experience other than in teaching, he had none, as academia had been his only occupation. He had more publications than I did. And the Faculty of Law might have wanted to retain him more than they did me because of his area of legal expertise.

He was being paid about 50 percent more than I was.

The university committee, chaired by the Provost, found the disparity between our salaries was acceptable, because, I was told, the relevant criterion for the assessment was years of teaching experience. In short, it seems they used as the main criterion for their judgment just one consideration and it was one where the man could be considered clearly superior – and note it was years of teaching experience, not teaching ability, in which latter respect I believe we were equal. On being informed of this assessment, I sent a letter to the Provost: 

Dear Provost, 
!! ??  
Margaret Somerville

A few days later, I passed the Provost in the street. He said “Hi, Margo!”. I said, “Good morning, Provost” and walked on, whereas usually I’d use his first name and stop for a short conversation. When I got to my office the phone was ringing. It was the Provost asking me why I was angry with him.

To be fair to McGill, despite my being seen as a very controversial figure in the public square, the university never questioned my tenure or suggested it could be revoked. For example, when my stance against infant male circumcision was reported in mainstream media, some members of the large Montreal Jewish community, including some colleagues, were very upset and even angry with me.

In the ensuing turmoil, I received a phone call from the Principal, who was Jewish. He told me that he had just spoken to one of the major donors to the university, who was Jewish. She had told him that if I wasn’t fired immediately she would never give another cent to McGill. I asked him, “Well then, what are you going to do?”. He said, “Nothing, because I believe in academic freedom and freedom of speech, but I thought that you should know.”

So let’s try to be fair and open-minded; these are complex issues with many facets that need deep ethical consideration. There are many sides to them that all require close attention and certainly the conversation about the issues that “women, boards and quotas” raises is not over and needs to be broad, far ranging and ongoing.

We should accept that and not try to suppress questions that must be asked and addressed by labelling them as politically incorrect or “slurs”, if for no other reason, in order to uphold respect for freedom of speech, which it is imperative for all of us to defend.  

Margaret Somerville is professor of bioethics in the school of medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

Margaret Somerville AM, DSG, FRSC, DCL is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor...