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52 pick up

07 March 2011

We've been discussing women a lot lately: their aspirations, leadership qualities and their value as customers. I often get quizzed about why we have a \"Women's Markets\" unit. One of the reasons is we bank two million women and it makes business sense to actually look at such an influential segment of the market to understand why it banks the way it does, what it wants from the experience and how can we grow that to achieve more for each of us.

For me, women's markets are important because women are great advocates. They will talk about you to their friends, colleagues, associates, family members. So, if the experience they have with you is a good one, then expect a rapid and loyal response and be ready for your workload to triple (and more) as their recommendations bring others to your door. That's the value proposition right there: '1' woman will tell '52' more about you and the pick up rate compounds.

(The flipside to that is if they have a negative experience. Then you better pray for a communication blackout.)

Pockets of resistance

We have just held our Chief Executive Women and Westpac Inaugural Leadership Forums. In 2009 we did a pilot event along similar lines in Melbourne and it was a great success. So this year, we decided to hold three separate events in March around the women and leadership topic in Sydney, then Melbourne and Brisbane.

400 women attended the Sydney event. The room buzzed and questions flew. (In fact, the audience was so captured I only noticed two guests leave the room before question time finished us up.) It was a standing ovation sell-out success and the other states were no exception.

In each state the panels differed, relating to the topic but keeping it in line with local concerns and issues and the national agenda. Our MC Wendy McCarthy worked the room at all three events with enthusiasm, a sense of proportion – we are not about alienating anyone – and humour. (Even when Graham Bradley on our Sydney panel made the admission that there were still – in this day and age – pockets of resistance to promoting women to the C-suite and leadership roles.) Certainly, Wendy's observations on the different ways risk can be approached in our lives helped the audience loosen up. She believes we must say 'Yes' first and 'No' later when it comes to placing and developing women in top management, board and leadership positions. But it's something that is at complete odds with her early work in family planning where she says, when it comes to fertility, the answer's 'No' first and 'Yes' later.

Eye on the ball

I've been with the bank for 25 years now and involved in growing and developing the women's market segment for more than 10 years. It's an area where we head the world in Global Best Practice. But there have been times when we have taken our eye off the ball. When other issues – mergers, global financial crises – have caused diversity to go out of focus. What I've learned is that you must never assume the box is ticked forever. When something as worthwhile as diversity is on your plate it pays to give it your full attention.

And the Female Economy (set to be worth more than that of China and India combined) will ensure our energy and focus remains constant. Because, outside the equal rights argument and the need for gender to no longer make a difference, there is a compelling business argument for why women must be supported to be leaders. We cannot afford to ignore the talent, skill and knowledge pool we have created. We cannot afford to ignore the economic and financial power of more than half the population. Eventually, if women continue to experience being left out and uninvolved in the decision-making processes that count toward meaningful community, societal, business and political change we will have an angry mob on our hands. History would seem to prove that when you ignore people who are finding their own feet, their own ways to grow, educate and better themselves financially, you run the risk of suffering the consequences.

The situation we find ourselves in now is unsustainable. We need to take the lead in our own lives and influence those around us to begin the process of accelerating change. One of the outcomes in the forums was to acknowledge that we need men to talk to men if change is to gather momentum... surely we all have brothers, fathers, partners, friends we could touch. Imagine if each of us opened the discussion with just 10 of them and they spoke to 10 others about how achieving a diverse balanced workplace makes great business and social sense. What will we have begun?

1 million converts

It's similar to the environment and creating a sustainable world through sustainable business practices. Something we have always taken a lead in and which is close to the hearts of many women. I say we want to touch 1 million women and we know we've found the perfect partner in that. Natalie Isaacs \"1 million women inspiring climate change\" ( is a fantastic campaign leading the way through women for a better future for the Planet. We are working with her and the movement to help reach the target of 1 in 8 Australian women each cutting 1 tonne of CO2 in their daily years within a year of joining. (Natalie has set the bar and wants to achieve this by 2012. It's similar to setting the bar for 40% participation by women at top management and board level within the next few years. There are some who feel it is impossible but many who know if you act first and analyse later you can get there.)

Start small

Touching that many people is a big ask but the fact you can do something yourself at a local level by joining and making a difference through cutting your footprint back makes it all seem really manageable – as manageable as micro-finance has become. It's an area in which Westpac is again taking a lead and we have recently entered into a strategic alliance with Many Rivers Opportunities Ltd (MRO) to provide micro loans directly to welfare recipients wanting to start or expand a micro enterprise. MRO is a not-for-profit organisation, and is an offshoot of Mission Australia – one Australia's largest charities. We've provided our first micro loan to a woman to begin her own business: dog washing. From unemployment to business owner, it's all about acting, creating change, building sustainable partnerships and developing leadership initiatives.