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Westpac's Gail Kelly retires, what it means for women in business

04 December 2014

Gail Kelly

Seven years ago in 2008 Australia welcomed its first female head of one of its Big Four banks. Gail Kelly (above), Westpac Group CEO, has announced she will retire on February 1, 2015. It’s a very precise and clear decision and one that is entirely in character with the woman and CEO I know.

This is no Dame Nelly Melba, the Australian soprano who made a “legendary number of farewell appearances”. In my experience when Gail sets her course it is deliberate and decisive. It will be a course for success and her personal style and brand will stamp it with her individual drive.

I know she loves colour and she expresses this in her own dress. Pink is her favourite colour and scarves. She never fails to make an impression. I’m sure there are people out there who will say, what does it matter what she wears? I agree, but what it does do is it sets you apart. It makes a statement about what you like and what makes you feel comfortable. Surely, we don’t all want to wear the same suit for a year and have no one notice at all? (I am referring, here, to the recent ‘news’ about television presenter Karl Stefanovic.)

I have been with Westpac for a long time, 33 years, and have seen a lot of changes. Our work with women - both internally and externally - began with Bob Joss back in the 1980s and continued with David Morgan. Gail has publicly acknowledged when she first arrived she didn’t believe we needed her to help with gender equity as we were really doing very well in that area. She also had a big job ahead of her merging Westpac and St George, followed by the building of her multi-brand strategy and running the business. It meant making priorities.

Not one to take her eye of the ball, Gail quickly realised that diversity and equality had to remain top of mind. She stepped up to the plate and began exerting her influence at work and in the community and before we knew it we had a female role model of epic proportions. I know I have said in this column before, but I have literally had to clear a path for Gail at Women’s Market events to get her in and out of a venue. She’s the rock star of equality.

I believe that unless your CEO leads and drives the business, and owns what makes that business special to people, you can lose your edge. Gail’s clear decision to take the lead on targets for equality has been life changing for many women.

She has also felt humbled realising her power and influence in the area was so far reaching.

Westpac’s share price has increased under Gail’s watch, and recently Roy Morgan showed Westpac had the highest proportion of satisfied retail customers among the banks in September, at 81.5 per cent. We also had the highest share of satisfied business customers. These are spots Gail has wanted to own. We are the world’s most sustainable company and our commitment to diversity through our benchmarking role with the Global Banking Alliance for women is recognised globally.

Westpac Group has a target to have women in 50 percent of leadership roles by 2017, which is an increase from the 42 percent we’ve already achieved and that baton has now been handed to our new CEO Brian Hartzer.

Brian, I can tell you, approached me many a time to work with him at ANZ when he was there. He has a long-held interest and belief in creating innovative, strong businesses and views that as something in which men and women must play an equal part if it is to succeed.

In my view Gail took us to the next level at Westpac with staff and our customers when it comes to relationships with women and ensuring we all get a fair go. Brian, who has four daughters and a vested interest in ensuring women have the same opportunities as men, will continue the work. His approach will be his, but he is hugely supportive of women and determined to attract the best and the boldest.

If you’ve see the recent figures released by the WGEA (Workplace Gender equality Agency) then you’ll know that there is an enormous disparity between the amount of men and women in ­senior ranks, particularly in ­financial and insurance services, and with that comes an enormous pay gap.

Brian has recently launched the Equilibrium Program to attract women to our industry. It is an industry that some have started to shun. To do that successfully Brian had to know the structures were in place to support women, including flexible work practices, gender equity and pay. They are.

I know many of you are probably wondering where Gail will go next. She looked radiant, bright and enthusiastic when she announced she was retiring so there’s something afoot. The international stage, as well as behind the lectern in academia, are all areas into which she has indicated she may move.

I know people have said to me they will miss her and have asked if we will miss her and we will but she has exciting and amazing times ahead and we’re all moving into a new era.