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Mass influence

03 April 2011

Lately, I’ve run across a lot of women who think corporate Australia, which they experience as predominantly male, is very unsophisticated. One has even gone as far as saying that in her successful business career overseas she never felt it was a negative to be female but in Australia that is a palpable sentiment within the business hierarchy. Embarrassing for all of us, I think.

At the recent CEW and Westpac Leadership lunch, panel member Elizabeth Bryan, Director Westpac Banking Corporation, pointed out at the end of the panel presentation that she couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about over women getting on boards.

You could here the coffee cups drop.

I mean, wasn’t that why we were all there – to discuss the critical factors in facilitating the increase in women at senior levels?

Well yes, but we were not there to focus on boards, which we seem to have got hooked on. Instead, as Elizabeth pointed out, there was something much more important to consider:

You can guide and influence on a board but you are not a leader in the company and you have no power. Power lies in senior management and that is where, Elizabeth felt, we should be concentrating the majority of our energies on getting and retaining women.

If you look at the real time figures, there is little doubt female participation at board and senior management levels is finally moving forward. The positive change is due to the fact that we now have credible institutional players and individuals backing the movement. The AICD and its industry leader members have begun to provide significant traction through a number of mentoring initiatives and specific courses. Policy changes in the public service and large corporates, targeting senior management and providing strategies for getting women into the positions, are also showing early signs of success. Momentum is there but the battle is not yet won.

Which brings me to a shameless plug for Westpac’s Learn Lead and Succeed series about to kick off around the country and in regional Australia. In conjunction with AGSM and working in with Westpac’s Mary Reibey scholarships this series is aimed at preparing and developing women who have reached certain levels in their careers to take the next big steps. It’s Westpac’s way of stepping up to the plate and providing strategies to keep the momentum, which both Gail Kelly and Elizabeth Bryan want to foster, going forward.

The target market is mass-affluent women, who, according to the marketing gurus, are characterised as earning above $75,000 a year. (The financial services industry in the US uses the term to refer to individuals with $100,000 to a million in liquid financial assets.) However you wish to define them, they are the women of mass influence in Australian business. They are the ones who are ready to step up to the plate and begin the move into senior management. They are the future of Australian business: corporate, owner operated, public, private, on the land, in the country or in the city, you name it.

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2 comments

  • Rachel Green

    Rachel Green 8 years ago

    I think there are other deep issues at stake too. Firstly though, with regards to your opening comment, yes Australia is a sexist country.One of the reasons many smart women are not making it to the top is because not all smart women wish to join the existing and sometimes brutal and competitive boy's club culture. Is it not that the culture of many organisations still needs changing to even be of interest to some women?Confident Woman Australia

  • Dianne Jacobs

    Dianne Jacobs 8 years ago

    It is going to take multiple and integrated strategies to increase meaningful board and executive opportunities for women - which is what we are currently seeing in Australia. How to get more women on boards? No one single tactic on its own will work. It is not about a change in either the boardroom or the corporate pipeline - it needs to be both. The solution needs to be systemic, including challenging the underlying thinking that women need to change and assimilate in order to succeed in corporate cultures. Quotas remain controversial; but there is increasing consensus that a fact-based approach with metrics is required to accelerate diversity and inclusion outcomes. The pace of change may make quotas inevitable - hence the recent rhetoric. The Norway quota system has obviously produced an increase in female directors (and they are younger and better qualified than the retiring men they replaced), but has not increased the number of women in executive ranks (i.e. where you would expect to source and recruit future directors.) How to get more women in the executive pipeline?Late last year I spoke to a range of companies to determine next practice actions and what will need to be done to increase gender representation at senior levels in corporations. The conclusions were: ~ Bench-strength is a focus. Integrating gender diversity more deeply into their business and talent strategy, leading companies are more disciplined with their commercial emphasis, their accountability mechanisms, their governance processes, their selection for higher-level appointments, their leadership development and sponsorship. ~ Skirting the pipeline and reaching down to pull women through to the top end of the pipeline has produced better outcomes. Companies that pay particular attention to promotion - earlier identification of potential, monitoring time to gain promotions, providing the right experience, patronage and process transparency - are seeing more women at all levels. ~ While measurable objectives and targets - with transparency to the marketplace - are seen as powerful drivers, there are concerns that core beliefs and stereotypes, often unconscious, are roadblocks to deeper change. Gender imprinting and how implicit bias plays out should not be ignored. ~ Changes to work practices, attention to life-stage diversity, how career success is defined, career paths manipulated and jobs constructed are given more attention in response to shifting demographics.So, should the focus be women on boards or women in executive ranks? I am looking forward to hearing what others think.