Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Women in leadership: Getting Serious

Westpac chief executive Gail Kelly tells an International Women’s Day lunch in Sydney on March 7 that more career paths to management are needed for women. Photo: Louie Douvis

The next part of the diversity conversation has to be about the benefits to customers, according to Woolworths human resources director Kim Schmidt.

“It’s the next level of the conversation: the benefits diversity brings to customers and the community, and the synergy we get from that,” Schmidt says. “Our cus­tomers mainly are female, and if you get diversity around the table and in thinking, you get better outcomes for business and customers. That’s the next phase.”

At the moment, Schmidt argues, we’re still trying to convince certain businesses it’s a good idea to get the right people in. But there’s been a move in the psyche of Australians and growing awareness of the need for greater change.

Social change often moves in this way, says Schmidt, who grew up in South Africa and observed how change occurred in the lead up to the dismantling of apartheid.

The time is certainly right for a deeper understanding of the diversity message in many companies, states Sally Herman, former Westpac executive, a board director and a council member of Chief Executive Women. The organisation is working with a handful of companies to establish the most useful gender parity resources. And ­Herman has been involved in relaunching the group’s CEO Tool Kit, which it introduced about six years ago as a diagnostic aid.

There’s less need for diagnosis now, and more cause for stimulating action.

“In the three companies we are working with, the senior executive team do get it, but where the challenges are is the next level in the organisation and breaking down the stereotypical responses,” Herman says. “In one of these companies, one of the executives went to a women’s forum and spent the day talking to women about the things they had to do to just get to work in the morning, and he came back and said he had no idea.”

CEW plans to offer an online tool suitable for a broad range of companies, plus the opportunity for its members to share their experience with senior executives from 15 to 20 companies a year.

Chief executives handle a range of business changes and this is just another one of them, Herman says. A number of large companies were well beyond the first phase in gender parity progress – getting focused on it – and are moving on to deeper issues, such as how to think about flexibility and the link to productivity.

Meanwhile, mentoring efforts to get more women on boards and in senior jobs need to continue, alongside levers like targets for female representatives, Herman says.

There’s still a wide gap between intention and outcome in gender parity, as a 2011 study of 842 senior business people by Bain and Company and CEW found.

Only 15 per cent of women believed they had equal opportunity (compared with 20 per cent in 2010) for promotion to senior management. With all the focus on parity, the slow pace of change is confounding, the survey states.

There is progress but measuring and monitoring must continue, Herman says. Westpac was at the forefront in the late 1990s and early 2000s when efforts were measured and reported. However, when that stopped, progress stalled.

So the to-do list for 2012 includes a more subtle but critically important task. It’s about a steady dismantling of the preconceptions and myths around gender and workplaces that still hold sway with men and women.

Focusing on both the formal requirements as well as attitude change throughout organisations is the key to a different way of thinking about people, jobs and productivity.

Sure, this requires an investment but not financially. It’s about vocal champions challenging some of the enduring and inaccurate beliefs.

These include: women lack ambition and don’t want promotions; workplaces are meritocracies; mothers don’t want careers; the pay gap is exaggerated; time will heal all. With so much activity around the business diversity agenda over the past 18 months, there’s an unusual opportunity to translate talk into action this year.


At the end of the 2011-12 financial year, all companies listed in Australia will be required to report under the new Corporate Governance Council Diversity guidelines. Private companies will be covered by similar legislation expected before federal parliament this year. The revised Equal Opportunity in the Workplace legislation and agency will require companies with 100-plus employees to provide annual gender reports.

There are early adopters who already report and a number of leading companies – including the big four banks, Telstra and Woolworths – have set targets for women in management, with progress to be tracked this year.

And after a boost in the number of women joining boards, which went from 8 per cent in 2010 to 13.8 per cent last year, the Australian Institute of Company Directors is continuing with an expanded mentoring scheme, pairing 76 company chairs with 80 aspiring directors.

More companies are conducting audits to address the pay gap and at times the results have been revelatory.

An encouraging number of CEOs have joined the conversation. The Male Champions of Change group set up by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick includes the CEOs of some of the country’s biggest listed companies, plus federal Treasury head Martin Parkinson.

The group is setting an example – and others are following. In South Australia, the Chiefs for Gender Equity is a group of male CEOs brought together by Anne Burgess, acting SA Commissioner for Equal Opportunity. Its nine members include Santos chief David Knox and Elders chief Malcolm Jackman. They have committed to using their experience and influence to support and drive change. Talent management, redesigning work practices and recruitment to deal with skill shortages are on their agenda over the next few months.

Source: Financial Review

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