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Raising the bar and our expectations for women in leadership

Even if you weren’t at last week’s Chief Executive Women luncheon, you might have read about the highs and lows in The Australian, the AFR and Chanticleer.  I was there among the throng of men and women and enjoyed reconnecting with many women in my network and hearing from the ever passionate panel chair, Wendy McCarthy and panelist federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick who both set the scene and the challenge in proclaiming that the new ASX guidelines will have achieved their goal when 40% of board directors are women.


The panel discussion and questions from the audience were lively and a highlight for me was in learning about the practical programs that panelist Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, the Chief of the Defence Forces, has put in place to increase female representation at the highest levels of the Defence Force.  This included creating a Women’s Reference Group, setting long term goals and a plan for increasing the number of women in leadership ranks, and subtly changing the traditional career path for Defence Forcers to better accommodate off-ramping and on-ramping by women.  Sharing best practice in this way is – I think – the path forward to realising sustainable change.

But I have to say I was disappointed in panelist Graham Bradley, Chair of  Business Council Australia, who predicted the best we can expect from the new ASX guidelines is a doubling of women on boards over 5 years – which means we’d go from 8% to 16% female representation. This is despite women comprising 51% of our population, 57% of commerce and business graduates and 67% of law graduates (both feeder courses for business and boards – and more women than men have graduated in these areas for over 2 decades now), and women controlling 77% of household expenditure decisions.  So board composition is neither representative of the gender mix in our communities, our workplaces or our consumer buying patterns. In this context, surely 16% isn’t enough.

Now to be fair, I did approach Graham after the presentation and he explained to a small group gathered around that given the current situation, a 100% increase would still be a good result; but that starting from such a low base, expecting more would be unrealistic and probably unachievable.  But who said this was ever going to be easy?

Shouldn’t we raise the bar, nonetheless, and all have our sights clearly set on 40% as the target number?  And go all-out towards achieving it?

Having led major change programs in the corporate arena, the one thing I know for sure if that you have to be bold and set your sights high to achieve major change.    If anyone knows how tough this challenge is, it’s professional women who are trying to make it to the top.  So please, let’s not have the men who comprise 92% of board positions and control 92% of board decisions telling us how hard it would be for them to oversee the change they are in a position to lead.

Australians are tough, resilient and have proven time and time again that we can punch above our weight – on the sports field, in swimming pools, in scientific research and on the battlefield.  So surely this is one challenge the business world can achieve, if we are all prepared to raise the bar and set our sights high.  

There is no illusion that this will be easy.  Achieving 40% female representation on boards – and in executive roles too – requires a collaboration across our communities and needs all of us to raise the bar, and our expectations:

1. Incumbent directors (92% of whom are men in the ASX200) need to lift their expectations of business women and themselves.  Yes, there are enough talented women out there to fill these roles, and please don’t tell us you can’t find us – we’re on registers, in community groups and professional bodies, ready, experienced and raring to go!

2. Business women need to raise the bar ourselves, and be ambitious and optimistic in describing our capabilities, experiences and strengths that we will bring to the boardroom table.

3. Headhunters need to take the road less travelled, dig deeper and be bold in guiding boards on selection criteria that will help in attracting women to board positions.  Is it really necessary for all board appointments to specify a need for prior board experience? Because I’m sure even men have had a zero baseline of experience in the beginning.

4. Employers need to rise above their current beliefs and stop seeing women as a riskier appointment.  They need to make their managers accountable for attracting, developing and retaining women and growing them into future leaders – and this will require training and resources all of which need budgetary funding.

5. Consumers (since women control 77% of household expenditure decisions) need to raise their expectations of business and we need to take a stand against those organisations who aren’t promoting their women and putting them onto boards.  The WOB Diversity Index will help you in identifying those businesses who still don’t have any women on their boards, or have only one or two.  We have to send a message – with our consumer spend – that this is not good enough; and

6. Investors need to raise the bar on financial performance and gender diversity.  We’ve known for a long time that organisations with more women in their leadership ranks produce financial results up to 35% stronger.  So even the investment bankers should be able to see there’s an accountability issue here and until women are adequately represented in leadership roles, we’re leaving value on the table.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that any of this is easy.  But does that make it right to do only what is?  I don’t know, am I on my own here or is anyone behind me?  Because if we’re really to make a difference, I think we need to find a way to have one voice on this issue – that’s one voice for men, women, employers, customers and our broader community about need for more women in decision making.

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