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Women in leadership – changing the balance

04 February 2014

sylvia falzon

Sylvia Falzon (above) questions until she’s satisfied the answers she’s getting address her concerns about women in leadership and feeding the pipeline.

Limited representation by women in leadership roles continues to be the norm in Australia. You only have to scan Fairfax Media’s AFR Power edition, published in November 2013, to experience the imbalance. Women are 50 per cent of the population, yet of the total of 69 individuals listed as wielding power across all manner of workplaces and areas of society in Australia, only seven (yes, 7) of them were women.

Sylvia Falzon is a non-executive director on a number of boards. She is also a member and source for the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia (WLIA). She sees her role at work and as a WLIA member in very clear terms. She wants to generate change in the system and create stronger businesses through diversity.

The WLIA, established by Melbourne business woman Carol Schwartz, provides a focal point for solving the challenge of limited representation of women in leadership roles. It numbers among its members leading Australian women of influence in business, government, philanthropy and the not-for-profit sector: Katie Lahey, Wendy McCarthy, Lucy Turnbull, Jan Owen, are just some examples.

After 27 years in the financial services industry, Sylvia put aside executive life around three years ago and began building her board portfolio career.

She is still close enough to her old executive life to comment on the differences: “In an executive role you’re dealing with one organisation usually. There’s clarity and you’re generally dealing with the same people on a regular basis. There are a lot of ‘knowns’ in that process. It’s more self-contained making it easier to work the other things in your life around it.

“As a non-executive director the work ebbs and flows. At various times of year there is convergence - AGMs, strategy setting – flipping you from one company to the next in quick succession. Other times of the year, there is more time to reflect.”

No matter the career, Sylvia believes if you have reached a level at which you can influence outcomes you need to use it effectively.

“A board member can influence the conversation around the board table. When it comes to diversity, you can ask about the recruitment process. If the organisation uses an external recruiter, what specific guidelines are provided around the organisation’s expectations when it comes to short lists: how many women, ages, ethnicity, etc. If there’s an expected percentage, what is it?

“Asking questions until you feel comfortable with the answers you’re receiving is important. It’s also important to ask questions around pipeline and what’s being done at various levels for those people coming through, their development, training, opportunities.”

Flexible work practices, she agrees, are a key but not the key to creating diversity in human capital, thought and engagement. Provision of training and development and the ways we provide opportunity also play a part, along with remaining aware about our unconscious biases and our own subjectiveness when it comes to career.

For example: “Career doesn’t have to be all about going up the ladder.”

The “sidestep”, she believes, needs to be given more consideration.

Sidestepping allows people to gain new experiences, new understandings and so gain new ways of seeing how the business operates. Not only are these sorts of people able to bring more skills to the table - businesses today are rarely single focussed, but are multi-disciplinary - they’re the sort of people whose experience in different parts of the business supplies that little bit extra in the overall scheme of things.

Leadership, Sylvia believes, is about the ability to bring people along and in her estimation those who have challenged themselves in different areas and have wide ranging achievements prosper. It also helps create diversity.

Career influencers – structured or not – are also extremely important.

“I know there have been opportunities I wouldn’t have pursued except someone I trusted, and who knew my skills, said to me you should go for this,” remarks Sylvia, who believes encouragement and objective reasoning can provide real confidence boosts.

On a lighter note her daily must-haves include access to technology, which she sees as a wonderful enabler; her networks, “what you put into them you get back tenfold”; her hair dryer and runners.

“Running is my think time. It’s a passion,” finishes Sylvia.



  • Dani Matthews

    Dani Matthews 7 years ago

    Great article Sylvia and very timely to raise your concerns for women in leadership with IWD rapidly approaching. I agree with the 'career side step' or as Sheryl Sandberg talks about it in Lean In as the 'jungle gym' versus career ladder. I encourage us all to think how we can act as a sponsor to the next generation of female leaders and advocate for them across our networks. We are in a connected era and I encourage women to develop their social capital embracing networks to get ahead.