Leading by example

by Melanie Mingas08 Mar 2019

Last October, 13,500 MFAA members were asked to elect their board representatives for the year ahead and, for the first time in the organisation’s history, the resulting line-up is predominantly female. Australian Broker examines what it means for diversity, inclusion and representation in the industry

Between 2015 and 2018, female representation in the broking industry declined by almost 7% from a peak of 34% in September 2015 to a mere 27.1% by March of last year.

In a bid to find out why, the MFAA collaborated with business consultant and coach Jane Counsel to produce the Opportunities for Women reports. The final results were published in December, concluding, among many things, that while 72% of men believe the broking industry provides opportunity to all, only 51% of women agree.

It isn’t just women who are underrepresented. The figures also highlight a diversity imbalance that spans ethnicity, sexuality, faith, disability and age.

So when an industry at such a point in its diversification journey organically elected a nearly all-female board for 2019, it made an undeniable statement.

“When you say five women out loud it’s awesome and it’s exciting, but it’s not a surprise because it is a skill-based outcome. It’s just the way things have worked out,” says board chair Donna Beazley.

Like any election, the process of campaigning for a place on the MFAA board calls for each candidate to present their unique skill sets, as well as the added value and experience they can bring to the organisation. The election itself is handled externally and conducted independently of the MFAA’s board, executive and staff.

“The composition of the overall management team and board has happened organically, but it’s a good mix” - Donna Beazley, chairman, MFAA board

With 13,500 members eligible to cast a ballot, every detail of a candidate’s career is considered in the decision.

Once elected, the board is responsible for providing leadership and guidance as well as overseeing the implementation of strategic initiatives. Each elected board member serves an initial two-year term and has the option to stand for re-election for a second term.

Deputy chair Melissa Gielnik says, “Our election was about skill set and experience as a collective group, and what we bring to the table. The board as a whole represents so many different parts of the market in our locations, our customer demographic and our family circumstance, and so we are able to represent a wide cross section of the broking community.”

Beazley and Gielnik are joined on the board by elected directors Kathryn Harrison, Sarah Wells and Rose De Rossi, as well as appointed board director Vladimír Malcík. As frontline brokers they represent various business structures, locations and customers, and together they are the only board in the history of the MFAA that is predominantly female.

While the board has almost always featured female members, the most recent election result is evidence of a sharp U-turn in attitudes since the association’s last diversity poll, which confirmed that the average broker is still male, heterosexual and aged between 47 and 57.

It also reflects current trends at the Australian Stock Exchange, where female representation on ASX-listed company boards increased 8.3% in the last decade.

However, as Wells says, the new board echoes the diversity that already exists throughout MFAA management and staff, as well as the passion all members hold for the broker channel.

“The commonality is that we are all here to serve a purpose irrespective of our diversity, and I think the diversity itself brings the ability to better identify and dissect issues. We come at things from a different perspective, but we are working for a common good. I truly feel that we function incredibly well together,” Wells says.

On the agenda

There are plenty of issues for the board to address over the coming months. Since the royal commission’s final report, the industry has been hijacked by politicians keen not to isolate – or demonise – more than 10,000 small business owners potentially weeks before an election.

In working to protect the future of broking, there are many roles brokers can play as individuals. However, a visible source of leadership and action will be crucial to industry morale and ultimately sustainability, and this is one of many things the board plans to achieve over the coming months.

Harrison says, “Sustainability through this period of flux is essential, and we must have the capacity to be reactive as well as proactive; whatever happens we will have to respond. Despite the effort and work that has gone into our solid growth, there have been some diversions on the road, and we have to respond accordingly.”

The agenda for 2019 is already set and will see a continuation of current work to support all the association’s members, as well as prioritising the fight for consumer outcomes, competition and access to credit.

“Moving forward in the coming year, our job is to support MFAA management and the wider broker community as we forge a path forward into sustaining the future longevity of our industry,” Geilnik says.

Beazley adds, “The agenda is quite revolutionary; it’s economically going to be challenging at times, but we are all ready to go to support the industry. That’s our main focus.”

The royal commission isn’t the only diversion on the road. At the time of the interview, Queensland and Tasmania were experiencing unprecedented natural disasters, with communities losing their homes and livelihoods to fires and floods.

“Sustainability through this period of flux is essential, and we must have the capacity to be reactive as well as proactive” - Kathryn Harrison, elected director, MFAA board

Acknowledging the difficulties that so many face at this time, the MFAA’s agenda as an association will also continue the mental health support program it launched last year. The Accidental Councillor scheme will be extended throughout the coming 12 months following a successful pilot last November. Further, new support initiatives and services for brokers will be announced soon.

“Mental health, economic stress – it doesn’t discriminate based on gender or race,” says Wells.

“There has been a lot of thought and consideration put into the diversity and needs of our individual members, and I’m very proud to be a board member and serve with the people around this table.”

While each of the 2019 board members has been elected on their own merit by thousands of their peers, the resulting line-up could also signal a change in attitudes across the industry, a readiness to reflect a new generation of brokers, or simply chance. Regardless, the work ahead will shape the broking community and industry for years to come, and in achieving that the most important factor is that differences are leveraged to address a common cause.

“The composition of the overall management team and board has happened organically, but it’s a good mix in age and gender when you look at the full line-up of decision-makers,” Beazley says. “We are all on the same path and we all have the same priorities.”