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Gender on the agenda

07 March 2011

I feel like I've been stalking the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner - not consciously but accidentally. Luckily, she and I went to school together so we do know each other well.

But there has been this run of events bumping up against one another. It began with lunch with Westpac where CEO Gail Kelly spoke about her experience of leading one of Australia's top companies. Then there was the CEW annual 'knees-up' celebrating 25 years, where Elizabeth (Broderick) pointed out on the way into dinner that Sam Mostyn's appointment to Virgin Blue's board tipped the scales for women on boards to 10 percent. But that's a whole other story.

And then, just the other day, I went to a lunch and there was Elizabeth again. This time she was guest speaker on gender equality and what can be done to achieve it, so it didn't come as a complete surprise to find her on her home turf. We did however note that we must either have the same friends and networks or maybe we're very popular people? No matter the answer, at each event she has indicated that when it comes to changing the balance and getting diversity and flexibility in the workplace we are finally finding some traction.

It depressed me at the CEW dinner to think that even though the room was full of women (nearly 800 of them and a few enlightened men) who had achieved, and who held great views and opinions, if the roof had collapsed like a stadium in India and taken us all out, the big end of town would have gone on the next day virtually without a blip. And that in 2010 is appalling.

I expect we all know the figures but it never hurts to run through them again and a very good source is the nascent Reibey Institute's work. The Institute announces itself as being \"a fully independent, not-for-profit research centre, which provides non-judgemental insight and exploration of women's leadership issues.\"

The Institute's August 2010 ASX500 Women Leaders Preliminary Research Note is fascinating and the group is keen to receive feedback and garner further support to address the issues they have begun to uncover.

Issues such as these: \"More than one third of women directors studied Commerce or Economics as part of their undergraduate education.\"

\"Women leaders in the ASX500 include; 225 directors, 10 chairmen, 13 CEO and 45 CFO positions.\"

\"Women represent 7.1% of board positions in the ASX500.\"

\"Across the ASX500, of the 225 board positions held by women, 167 are filled by unique women.\"

And perhaps most interestingly: \"ASX500 companies with women directors delivered an average ROE over 3 years 10.7% higher than those without women directors.\"

SMEs the next big hope

What stands outside all this 'ASX100-500' stuff is the amount of women who are running their own SMEs and doing extremely well. Leaders of a different sort and in an area of expertise that could well provide some great learnings for anyone in business and in the business of leading, these are smart, thoughtful, innovative women. On the dinner table I sat at for the CEW anniversary affair there were three great women business stories: Shelley Barrett from beauty brand ModelCo, Sam Wagner from fashion and bag house Sambag and Barbara Pollak from Pearsons florists. In the room itself were countless others.

At the lunch at which Elizabeth spoke the focus was on how do we get the role of caring recognised and given the kudos and support it deserves, along with some rather sobering points on sexual harassment, discrimination and inequality in pay and the fate of the next generation taking on the reins and keeping gender equality high on the nation's agenda.

Young writer and opinion leader Emily Maguire was made reference to. She has noted that just about anything a girl does from waxing to pole dancing, to caring for children and working and everything in between is empowering... but if all these often opposing ideas are empowering why is it that men aren't doing them. Think about what the media tells us in one breadth and then says in the next and you'll get what she means...

It certainly made me think what a complex landscape the next generation of women have to face and how difficult it can make getting a sane voice heard.

Happiness and money

On an entirely different but not completely unrelated note, I was in Melbourne in September and got to attend some of the Writers Festival where I saw Ross Gittins, The Age economics columnist, terrorism financial expert Loretta Napoleoni and political commentator Lenore Taylor discussing the question: \"What Really Make$ the World Go Round?\" The big takeaway for me was that financial wealth does not = happiness. Longitudinal studies on happiness show that happy people are more successful and that it requires work to be successful and happy. \"Authentic Happiness\" to take the line from the book by Martin Seligman, the positive psychologist, is not based on quick self indulgences but rather long range happiness comes with work, analyses, thought, reflection and application.

So much for chocolate unless you grow the stuff and make it from scratch?