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True believers? Two of Australia’s leading CEOs send conflicting messages about the strategic priority of gender equality

I’ve been pondering this week just how important gender equality in leadership is to the business community in Australia?  With the release of the 2010 Census of Women in Leadership (showing we’ve made almost no progress since reporting began in 2002), and ongoing attention around the ASX gender reporting guidelines, the consistent message from corporate affairs departments around the country is that our business leaders are more focused than ever on fixing the gender gap at the top.  But what sort of priority is attached to the issue?

Two events this week have convinced me that we still have a long way to go.

On Wednesday I attended a lunch hosted by the Australian Institute of Company Directors, to launch the 2010 Census results.  In his keynote address, Mike Smith, CEO of ANZ Bank  (one of Australia’s top 4 banks) spoke about the need for big business to continually innovate if they are to survive.  He also confirmed what many of us already know: that many big companies don’t cope well with change, and that the lack of innovation in large companies is often cased by a lack of diversity.  

Smith sounded like a true believer, confirming gender diversity is the right thing for business.  He now has 3 women on his management board of 12, which is three more than there was when he started in the role years ago.  He also announced new initiatives by the Bank to encourage mums back to work including superannuation payment on all parental leave payments and a $4000 childcare allowance for primary carers.  The script sounded good until a question from the floor asked “Why such a difference between female directors on government boards (33%) versus the private sector (8%)?”  Smith’s off-the-cuff response was: hours.  In other words, to rise to the top in the private sector one must work long hours, much longer than a standard working week and presumably longer than the opening hours of long day-care centres.

I see this sort of incongruency all the time.  On the one hand Smith emphasises the need to do things differently; on the other hand an unbreakable bond with the past.  All other things being equal, the person who works the most hours will be offered the promotion – even though by definition this implies a level of inefficiency (producing the same output from more hours is somehow seen as better than doing it in less!).  If you work in a professional services firm you’ll know what I mean: promotions are still influenced more by billable hours than anything else.

Another contradiction came from David Thodey, CEO of Telstra (Australia’s largest telco) at the Australian School of Business “Meet the CEO” event last night.  These alumni forums are brilliant, offering a rare opportunity to get inside the brilliant minds of our top business leaders.  In the case of Thodey, he shared his vision for Telstra and details of his customer-focused turnaround strategy.  In line with what-gets-measured-gets-managed thinking, Telstra execs now have 40% of their at-risk remuneration linked to customer satisfaction metrics and targets (which is good news for the half-a-million phone calls Telstra customers make to the organisation every day).  

But what of gender equality targets?  Thodey (in response to my question relating to the company’s diversity committee, which he chairs) remains unconvinced that reporting on gender diversity targets to the board is the right thing to do.  And he’s definitely opposed to quotas.  Why? Because it emphasises meeting a number instead of changing behaviours for the right reasons. Really?  Isn’t it about using the numbers to drive behavioural change – like he’s happily doing in linking executive remuneration to customer satisfaction scores?  Or perhaps it’s only the top priority issues that deserve this sort of attention.

Another leader, another inconsistency.  No wonder we’re not making progress in advancing women as leaders.  Until all leaders are focused on gender equality as a top strategic issue I suspect that nothing much will change for women.


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