The Australian Institute of Company Directors has launched a year-long mentoring program to help 63 women onto company boards.

The women will be mentored by 56 chairmen and senior directors from Australia’s 200 biggest listed companies.

The institute says the latest figures show that women make up only 8.3 per cent of board directors among ASX 200 companies.

However, the AICD’s chief executive, John Colvin, says the program’s success should not be judged solely on how many extra women it helps into board positions.

“When the top chairmen in Australia get behind something like this, that’s a huge signal, I think, to the rest of the boards throughout Australia and, quite frankly, boards everywhere that where we are is not good enough and that we have to improve it,” he told reporters.

The Business Council of Australia launched a similar mentoring program for management positions last month, but John Colvin says the moves are not intended as a response to recent pressure for legislation to introduce quotas.

“We can do what we can do, and other people can assess and see whether they need to do anything else,” he added.

“But there is quite a lot of enthusiasm for this general diversity aspect, and I actually think it’s the mood change and the cultural change which is the most important thing and has the most long lasting effect.”

The institute says it had no problems finding mentors, and that no one it approached declined to volunteer.

The list includes the chairmen of some of Australia’s largest companies, including Elizabeth Bryan from Caltex, Roger Corbett from Fairfax Media, Catherine Livingstone from Telstra and Elizabeth Alexander from CSL.

The AICD says it had more applicants for the program than places, but will hold other events and initiatives to assist women who missed out on the program to further their careers.

When asked if the institute may extend the mentoring program to other under-represented groups among ASX 200 boards, such as people from a more diverse range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, the AICD’s chairman Richard Lee responded that addressing the gender gap was the number one priority.

“I think in the current debate, certainly the current debate in corporate Australia and around government, when people say diversity, what is in the front of their mind is gender, and I think quite rightly,” he replied.

“That’s not to say that there aren’t other challenges in the diversity space, but I think the gender diversity on boards, and this has been pretty well researched, is an important nut to crack.”

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