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Will Power

07 March 2011

On August 31st as the now Prime Minister was still deep in conversation with the three Independents, Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Terry Windsor, I was at lunch with Bill Evans, Westpac's senior economist, and a roomful of hi-energy women in Melbourne. Bill was there to speak with us about the economy and on what is in store for the future, but I have to admit I was more intrigued to hear his prediction for who would eventually lead the country.

Given the fact that the preferences for the independents were Liberal and that the three men's party allegiances appeared to be with a Liberal National coalition, Bill was calculating it would be an Abbott win.

Jump forward to September 14 when next I saw Bill - for our Sydney lunch - and I couldn't help but think how a couple of weeks in politics can be a very long time in history. For me, what Bill had failed to account for in his equation was the never-underestimate-the-will-power-of-a-woman element.

And while I don't ever want to be accused of saying I told you so, I do wonder what the Gillard supremacy will mean for all of us. Certainly, in my experience, women are more cautious in most areas of life but especially when it comes to taking risks in business. We are also more diverse in the way we think ... and in the way we cope and deal with situations, coming up with creative, innovative and very different solutions to our male counterparts.

Cautionary tales

The GFC is not over and for the next few years we will all need to tread cautiously and think in new ways. Women have the ability to be and do both these things. We are cautious by nature and far more inclusive in our approach to life and work and those attributes are going to be what's needed to navigate the continuing business and financial climate. Now, if I can only get everyone to think seriously about Superannuation, one of the places where women are not being clever at all. But, I suppose we can't be perfect at everything?

Talking about perfect, on September 2nd, along with about 800 other guests, we helped celebrate the 25th anniversary of Chief Executive Women at their annual black tie dinner. It was a room full of talented high-achievers including Westpac CEO Gail Kelly, Federal Sex and Age Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick and half the joint Creative Directorship for the Sydney Theatre Company, Cate Blanchett.

10%

It was Elizabeth who pointed out, on the way into dinner, that Sam Mostyn's September 1 appointment to the board of Virgin Blue as a non-executive director has finally pushed us to 10 percent. I'm talking here about the fact that we now have 10 percent women on boards.

Pathetic really, but better than the 8.7 percent we had in 2009, according to an EOWA report. Although, as Elizabeth has pointed out a number of times at various speaking engagements: There are signs that a downward trend is likely in the coming years \"as the already low number of women in feeder positions to top leadership appointments decreases... experience in line management positions is essential for progressing to top corporate positions. In 2006, women held only 7.5% of the Executive Line Management positions. By 2008, that number had fallen to 5.9%.

\"How can this be,\" asks Elizabeth, \"when women make up over 51 percent of our population and are educated to a higher level than men? In fact, the Global Gender Gap report released by the World Economic Forum... shows Australia sits in the group of countries that are number one on women's educational attainment but we are number 41 when it comes to women's workforce participation.\"

Making changes

Certainly, CEW President Naseema Sparks' speech and the guest speaker on the night Dr Helen Nugent had the experience and even more facts backing up this very worrying trend. But there was also light at the end of the tunnel - well, 6 pieces of advice Dr Nugent thought could help change the situation.

Firstly, women need people (read men) who will champion them and their inclusion into executive positions and onto boards.

Secondly, women themselves need to stand up and push for change. However, like anything worthwhile and anything associated with change there will be opposition and negative flack and we need to be prepared to face that.

Thirdly, women need to skill themselves for, and make the moves into, line management roles.

Her fourth point dovetailed into her third. Dr Nugent noted that at HSC level many girls achieve great marks in maths and sciences and yet at university they constitute just 19 percent of engineering students. She also pointed out how necessary it is to experience failure to build resilience. Not the sort of failure that is devastating but a sort of managed failure, one that in the end supports growth and development.

And finally, we need unbiased organisations. There needs to be cultural change within organisations to remove unconscious bias where possible.

It was a night where even the raffle prizes (17 of them to be exact and amounting to more than $95,000 in prizes) were awe-inspiring. All monies earned from the raffle - and at my table alone we bought more than $500 worth of tickets - were going toward funding CEW scholarships for women in business.

Votes of thanks

And that reminds me about one of our own scholarship winners, Genevieve Smith, the city based recipient of our inaugural Mary Reibey scholarship who wrote to me the other day to thank us for the opportunity to attend the AGSM's General Manager program. Genevieve is the global marketing director for TechnologyOne an IT company and according to her assessment, the program's construction was ingenious, creating a collaborative and supportive team spirit among the participants.

\"There was a facilitator who looked after mind, body and spirit; a plethora of top level academics presenting on business theory, as well as an accomplished media identity who worked on our presentation, language and media skills. I feel the course directly impacted on my abilities and understanding of the following areas:

  • key factors for corporate sustainability
  • optimisation of organisational performance
  • the importance of developing and supporting a culture of innovation
  • strategic thinking skills
  • financial principles
  • presentation and media skills
  • the pros and cons of my personal leadership style

\"Of course, I've also formed great friendships with the other course participants and managed to have quite a lot of fun along the way. I believe these relationships will continue to offer me a terrific sounding board and a great source of support and information in the future.\"

News

I always knew the scholarship was a great idea - just as the ruby connection continues to be for women. And I have news on that front too.

We are now on Facebook and you can follow us on Twitter as well. Why? Because you, our audience, are there and we want to keep in touch. So tweet away, log onto facebook and read ruby.

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