A push is on to double the proportion of women on the boards of superannuation funds in the next five years, especially in light of a retirement savings ''gender gap'', in which women are spreading much smaller nest eggs over longer lifespans than men.
The Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees (AIST) - the peak body for non-profit superannuation funds - and the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) want women sitting in at least four of 10 chairs around trustee-board tables by 2017. They currently account for about two out of every 10 trustees overseeing the management of $1.4 trillion in superannuation funds. According to the Women on Boards 2012 Boardroom Diversity Index, 25 superannuation trustee bodies have men-only boards.
''We know that women retire with significantly less superannuation than men,'' the chief executive of AIST, Fiona Reynolds, says.
''Having gender diversity on the board will not only lead to better decision-making, it will ensure more is done to address the gender gap in retirement savings.''
AIST this week released research on the experiences of female directors of super funds that showed many thought of super as a ''boys' club'' - a difficult environment in which to become noticed, promoted and supported.
EOWA director Helen Conway has endorsed AIST's target, noting a big issue in super is the gender pay gap, which has significant implications for women while they work and in their old age.
''Not only do women earn less than men during their working lives, importantly, and sadly, it's a big issue for women in retirement,'' Conway told the AIST governance conference, at which the research results were released. ''Women retire with substantially lower retirement funds than men. We see that 70 per cent of single age pensioners are women, and we see that women are 2½ times more likely than men to live in poverty in their old age. There is also some recent data that older women are making up a greater percentage of the homeless.''
Using official statistics on average weekly earnings, the EOWA puts the gender pay gap in favour of men at 17.5 per cent, with the biggest discrepancies in the financial services industry (33 per cent) and in the mining-boom state of Western Australia (25 per cent).
While women aged 15 to 19 earn slightly more than men on average (3 per cent), by the age of 45 to 49, men are earning 27 per cent more.
Earlier AIST research, conducted with the Australian Centre for Financial Studies, confirmed a ''flatlining'' of women's superannuation balances in the middle of their working lives, when they typically spend five or six years out of paid work to raise children.
At the time of the 2010 study, the average super balance for women aged 58 to 62 was just $95,000, compared with $210,000 for men approaching retirement.
The break in super contributions is compounded by the fact women earn almost 20 per cent less than men, the AIST says. One estimate, from the AMP.NATSEM Income and Wealth Report, is that a 25-year-old man is likely to earn $2.4 million over the next 40 years, compared with $1.5 million for a woman the same age.
Women on Boards executive director Claire Braund also supports the 40 per cent target for super-fund boards.
''There's no shortage of well-credentialed women to take on trustee roles and move the sector to 40:40:20 representation, which is where it should be,'' Braund says, referring to a ratio under which women would hold at least 40 per cent of board seats and men at least 40 per cent, with the remaining 20 per cent flexible. This is the target the federal government has set for its own boards and committees for 2015.
Women on Boards has a database of 16,000 women seeking board positions and provides director searches for boards.
Rita Mallia is one of two women directors on the board of the Cbus super fund, an industry fund allied with the male-dominated construction industry.
As a lawyer with experience of union-member issues around super, Mallia has no doubt that she was selected on merit, adding: ''I don't think it would have escaped them that there was a qualified candidate who also happened to be female.''
The union has been working to promote women in leadership roles, says Mallia, who since joining the Cbus board has also become president of the NSW branch of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, for which she has worked for 16 years.
Mallia wasn't involved in the AIST study but supports the proposal to set a 40 per cent target. ''I think setting ourselves an aspirational target and trying to move towards that is not a bad thing,'' she says. ''If you leave it to natural, organic growth, it might never happen.''
And she believes having more women on super-fund boards would help address the gender gap in retirement savings.
''As women, we are more mindful of these things, aware of the challenges. At board level, we are able to advocate for better products and legislation. If you have all men around a table, they may unintentionally not give that sort of issue the priority it deserves.
''Having women at the table representing 50 per cent of the population, speaking about their experiences, the experiences of women workers, will help make the decisions of a board more relevant, and possibly start a debate around some of these issues.''