New research says the boards of big Australian companies are held back by male pack mentality.

Researchers have found that a persistent boys’ club mentality is impairing decision-making at the top, particularly in relation to corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.

Lead researcher Dr Kathy Rao says the lack of gender diversity and a male pack mentality causes biased and unbalanced decisions.

“Women bring a unique set of values, perspectives and capabilities to top-level decision-making which can help boards address CSR issues in a more effective manner,” Dr Rao says.

“But old-school attitudes tend to hold them back, partly because they don’t have a critical mass to push new ideas over the line, but also because there are a few powerful older male directors who are so focussed on profit that they disregard CSR is ‘soft’ when it is raised by female directors.

“The challenge is, however, that CSR is incredibly important for ethical and sustainable business, so companies are essentially shooting themselves in the foot if they purposely, or inadvertently, avoid CSR strategies.”

Despite the increasing focus on CSR and gender diversity, gender imbalances appear to be compounded by ‘like-attracting-like’ recruitment practices.

Co-researcher Professor Carol Tilt says unconscious bias is a massive issue for Australian boards.

“Board members’ lack of awareness of their own bias is perhaps the single most damaging factor for effective leadership,” Prof Tilt says.

“Australian companies need to be more proactive in offering training and incentives for more women to become actively involved in firm governance – and, to achieve this without regulatory pressures or token appointments simply to meet gender targets.

“Unfortunately, when boards look for new members, they’re often reluctant to appoint female members or candidates who have different experiences to their own, defeating the capacity to recruit a diversity of views.

“Such a blinkered approach to governance is highly risky, and while members may not know they’re operating in such a way, a lack of gender diversity almost guarantees this outcome.

“As you can appreciate, influence is king on boards; if you don’t have it, you can’t make much of an impact.”

The study is accessible here.