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BlackRock, Aberdeen push for more women executives in Australia

[SYDNEY] Investment firms managing more than US$712 billion are calling on Australia's biggest companies to appoint more women to executive roles, as they step up pressure for gender diversity.

The eight firms including BlackRock and Aberdeen Standard Investments want at least 40 per cent of senior leadership roles at S&P/ASX 200 companies to be held by women, 40 per cent by men and the remainder from any gender by 2030, according to the Vision 40:40 Investor Statement published Thursday. The statement's signatories have committed to pressing companies to set clear and public targets toward achieving the goal.

In Australia, currently only about a third of management roles overseeing a business unit's profit and loss are held by women, despite 84 per cent of firms saying they're focused on improving gender diversity. There's a heightened investor focus on corporate culture, demonstrated by a shareholder backlash over a sexual harassment scandal at wealth manager AMP Ltd that triggered the resignation of its chairman and the demotion of the executive at the center of the claims.

"We see lack of gender diversity in leadership as a financial risk," Debby Blakey, chief executive of Health Employees Superannuation Trust Australia and chair of the Vision 40:40 steering group, said in an emailed statement. "Companies that fail to consider 50 per cent of the population for leadership positions risk missing out on the best people and the performance of the organization will eventually suffer." While Australian boards have lifted female representation to more than 30 per cent following years of investor pressure, that's yet to filter into executive ranks. Just 30 firms have a gender balanced leadership team, and only one woman was named a chief executive in the past year out of 25 appointments, according to Chief Executive Women.

"It's concerning progress has been so slow," Ms Blakey said. "At this rate it will be another 80 years before we see equal representation of men and women at CEO level - and similarly in executive leadership - unless action is taken now." The first signatories to the Vision 40:40 Investor Statement are Aberdeen, BlackRock, Ellerston Capital, Fidelity International, First Sentier Investors, IFM Investors, Pendal Group and WaveStone Capital.

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