It is indisputable that increasing the number of women in executive leadership roles will make business more productive, but making this happen will require more leadership on the issue in existing areas of authority, both government and corporate.
Corrs Partner and CEO John W. H. Denton addressed the Australian Executive Women’s Leadership Symposium in Melbourne on 22 June. John was a keynote speaker, sharing his views on “Male Champions of Change - why elevating the representation of women in leadership is key.”
Click 'text version' to read the full transcript.
Hundreds of journalists have asked Director and Screenwriter, Joss Whedon, why he creates strong female characters like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, most recently, Black Widow of the highly successful Avengers film.
He replies that what he does shouldn’t be celebrated or seen as unusual, because the real question is why hundreds of other guys DON’T write fabulous, feisty women into their films.
Whedon is a Generation X cult hero, raised on the teachings of an influential feminist mother and a father who prized women of wit and resolve.
But contrast Whedon’s stance with that of John Gray, who’s book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, popularised the differences between the genders -- albeit light-heartedly in chapters that include ‘Men are like Rubber Bands’.
When it was released two decades ago, Gray’s book spawned a Mars-Venus business empire. The industry he created (on no scientific basis, I should add) has now sold 40 million books based on the notion that misunderstandings, stemming from inherent differences in men and women, can cause relationships to break down.
So, if we are to reflect on gender inequities, should we be focusing on Dr. Gray’s planetary disconnections ... or Joss Whedon’s view that gender equality is not an option. It’s a necessity, like gravity, integral to life’s balance and flow?
A view more like ‘Men are from Earth, Women are from Earth – so deal with it!”
In the next 20 minutes or so, I will consider how the exploration of gender differences and the ‘get on with it’ attitudes both have their place in advancing women’s leadership roles.
We’ll look at what the research is telling us, the economic case for workplace equality and the barriers to women’s advancement as well as the opportunities available through advocacy and mandatory reform.
I would be surprised if any of you need to be convinced about the moral and ethical case for gender equality in the workplace, so let’s take it as given that ensuring women have a fair footing is the right and only sensible thing to do.
No less compelling, however, is the business case - even though many companies are yet to give gender equality the same attention that they devote to the likes of inflows, outflows and tradeable goods.
If companies realised that business activity would go up by 12 percent if they made some relatively risk-free strategic moves, most would probably leap at the opportunity.
If they were told that those same moves had already boosted the economy by 22 percent, they might even be champing at the bit.
Add in gaining a competitive edge through a talented workforce, that also reflects their consumer and employee demographics. It’s not hard to guess the rest.
So you’d think that when the Goldman Sachs study said Australian business activity would rise 12% if the gender gap was addressed that business would have taken notice.
Why is there so little crowing about how the rise in female employment since 1974 has boosted our economy by 22%? Or recognition of the potential that female employment can grow GDP much more?
The Economist has pointed out that the increase in employment of women in developed countries during the past decade has added more to global growth than China.
And it’s not just about the macro picture: including more women can have profound effects on even the smallest businesses.
A McKinsey Global Survey has found almost three-quarters of company directors believe there is a direct connection between a company’s gender diversity and its financial success.
Companies with the highest levels of gender diversity also have high returns on equity, operating results and growth in market valuation, when compared with industry averages.
We know companies with higher levels of women in management and on boards often do better. That creating balanced ecosystems can help businesses to thrive.
So when it seems like a corporate ‘no brainer’ to bring more women to the table, why don’t the statistics reflect the opportunities at hand?
Changing the conditions for women in the workforce is, of course, a process of incremental steps on the way to achieving much bigger social change.
It has been, and will continue to be, addressed on many levels.
But leadership on the issue is key.
We need clear and continuing government leadership on gender equality and more women with political power – here and overseas.
Last year the World Economic Forum recognised that women had emerged as key civic leaders during the Arab Spring uprising.
Today there are 20 female elected heads of state or government. But the global average of women parliamentarians is less than 20% - a figure nowhere near one of true representation.
I am fortunate to serve on the Asia Business Advisory Council of APEC, an organisation that last year recognised the importance of women to economic growth and prosperity, and strengthened moves to address the social and structural impediments women’s participation in APEC economies.
At APEC’s Women and the Economy Summit, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said, for the first time in its history, APEC had made a declaration affirming commitment to improving women’s access to capital and markets, to building women’s capacities and skills, and to supporting the rise of women leaders in both the public and private sectors.
The global dream of allowing everyone to participate in the economic life of a nation could not be realised by tinkering around the edges of reform, she said.
It required a fundamental transformation, a paradigm shift in how governments make and enforce laws and policies, how businesses invest and operate, how people make choices in the marketplace.
Progress in APEC countries had been too slow and too uneven. Economies that were making the shift more effectively and rapidly were dramatically outperforming those that had not.
Last year Korn/Ferry’s Asia Pacific Diversity study found that the percentage of women on boards in most Asian countries is about half that in Europe, Australia, and North America, and 70% of boards in six countries -China, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Singapore – have no independent female directors.
Young women across Asia are fast becoming more educated than their male peers and will soon take on a greater role in the economy.
Soon Asian women will earn more, spend more, and play a greater role in the business community – making it imperative that boards better reflect companies’ markets and customer bases.
Secretary Clinton, along with many other leaders, believes that diversity in leadership is essential to the sort of innovation needed to tackle the current economic challenges and build equitable and sustainable growth.
As she said: “We don’t have a person to waste, and we certainly don’t have a gender to waste either.”
So where to start?
Getting the blokes on board – as in the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s Male Champions of Change initiative - has, through CEO involvement, put the spotlight on gender equality in a number of business sectors.
Talk of possible quotas for women on boards in Australia, have also invigorated calls to action.
But talk is one thing, gaining traction is another.
Even with the admirable initiatives of more than 200 European companies surveyed by McKinsey this year, there are fewer women in influential executive positions than there are on boards.
Executive roles are central to everyday corporate decision-making and in providing women candidates for board positions. However, at the current rate of change, women will still account for less than 20% of company executives ten years from now.
In Australia the percentage increase in board positions in two years looks impressive until the low base, from which they are calculated, is taken in account.
The actual number of Australian women business leaders is still largely stuck where it’s been since 2002.
Australian women – who make up nearly half the workforce – still only hold 8% of executive positions and 14.5% of places on the boards of the largest 200 listed companies.
Many companies have no female managers or board members at all.
A country’s use of the skills, education and productivity of its workforce is crucial to competitiveness.
As Klaus Schwab and Saadi Zahidi of the World Economic Forum say: “Countries and companies will thrive if women are educated and engaged as fundamental pillars of the economy.”
Great strides have been made in advancing the education of women and girls in subjects once deemed male bastions.
Australia, in fact, tops the World Economic Forum list for female educational attainment but ranks a paltry 45 for labour force participation and 76 on wage equality.
What that says is that many women have a career pipeline with far too many leaks and blockages.
Let’s start with the hoary old chestnut – the inequity of women’s pay.
The Australian gender pay gap is still wide open, as serious as it was 25 years ago. If it were closed, Deloitte says, Australian GDP would get an 11% boost.
A good deal of progress has been made in the past three decades but we are still only two-thirds of the way to unlocking the hidden value of the female labour pool. We need to do more. Our workforce is aging and shrinking in size. It will, in the future, need all hands on deck.
The equality of women in the workplace is an issue of productivity, economy and, most importantly, human rights.
In spite of recent grumblings, we do live in a wealthy democracy – one in which women should not be two and a half times more likely than men to live in poverty in their later years.
Much effort has gone into promoting superannuation, yet there is still a glaring hole between women’s earnings and savings and those of their male counterparts.
According to a Catalyst study pay is an issue right from the start - even in the same jobs, between comparable male and female applicants.
Catalyst looked globally at more than 4000 MBA graduates over 11 years and found that men enter the workforce at higher levels, even when years of work experience, industry and region are taken into account.
Men are twice as likely as women to be at CEO or Senior Executive level. Men’s salaries outpace women’s and men will rise to the top faster even if they start at the same entry level in companies.
Perhaps most surprising is that the inequity is not due to a lack of female aspirations or parenthood: when men and women who do not have children living at home are compared, men still start at a higher rate.
As Xerox Chair, Anne Mulcahy has observed, “Companies are very good at managing grade levels and salary dispersions. If you come in the door in the wrong placement, those systems aren’t going to adjust the imbalance.”
If patterns persist, many of the women who enter the workforce will take staff roles, get stuck in middle management or leave because of dissatisfaction with their workplace – often without telling their employer their concerns.
But, Catalyst says, handy excuses for gender inequality in the management ranks, that put the onus on women, do not stack up.
The Catalyst study questions common assumptions about demographics and life choices, namely that inequities occur because women leave to start families; women don’t aspire to upper management or there are regional differences that skew the results.
Those excuses, the report argues, are red herrings that do not account for why women continue to lag.
Clearly unconscious or conscious bias plays a large role in the hiring, workplace acceptance and promotion of women - I will discuss that later – but it is somewhat astonishing that business drivers alone are not enough to make the female case.
There are very real costs for companies that ignore issues perceived as soft, like work-life balance, in favour of hard issues such as skilled labour shortages and competition.
Many business are yet to address the productivity losses that stem from inflexible workplaces with high levels of distraction, disengagement and a tendency to lose valuable employees.
It is estimated that the cost of replacing an employee ranges from between 25 and 500 per cent of the lost person’s salary. And that’s not counting productivity costs or the effect of poor workplace morale.
Another major driver should be the link between management, boards and a company’s consumer base.
Women control about 75% of consumer spending, and represent a market bigger than China and India’s populations combined.
Given that, it is logical that they should have a much greater say in how businesses sell their services and wares.
But, as the Baby Boomers start turning 65, let’s not forget the effect of aging around boardroom tables.
More than 1100 directors of Fortune 1000 boards are more than 70 years old so, when you do the arithmetic, it’s clear that vacancy signs are about to be put on a number of board seats.
Executive recruiters, CT Partners, say that means there’s a demand for a new generation of directors, one that will include individuals capable of contributing new insights into customers, technology, distribution channels and international markets.
That change opens up the opportunity to appoint more women directors although the onus will be on boards, management teams and search firms to ensure qualified women fill those slots.
But all of this is not only a question of smart business, human rights or social justice.
The participation of women is crucial if we are to harness all the energy, thinking and diversity of views needed to find new ways to address the complex, multi-layered problems of the past.
As Einstein said: We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Which brings me to the issue of unconscious bias – a key target of Melbourne Business School’s Gender Equality Project, in which my firm, Corrs, is fortunate to be involved.
Even the most well-meaning policies are unlikely to succeed unless they are grounded in a deep understanding of how people think and behave.
If you think you know what you think, it’s probably worth spending ten minutes or so doing Harvard University’s Implicit Attention Test online.
You are likely to be surprised and disturbed by what it reveals about your unconscious or so-called implicit prejudices.
Researchers have now spent years studying implicit prejudices, looking at how they influence behavior to others and ourselves.
The work has profound implications for those trying to change entrenched attitudes because it shows that anyone is capable of prejudice and stereotyping, whether they know it or not, and whether they want to act that way or not.
And, on top of that, our unconscious, unintended and uncontrollable prejudices are generally much better predictors of behavior than our conscious thoughts.
Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard University and Curtis Hardin of New York’s City University say that implicit attitudes about race, gender and so forth are embedded at an early age, and are associated with the non-rational part of our brains.
These unconscious prejudices are insidious: They influence strongly how we treat others - often making us revert to known stereotypes when a judgment needs to be made - and they are important predictors of how we evaluate and treat ourselves.
So how does this play out?
Leslie Pratch, a clinical psychologist who headed a University of Chicago study, found that women leaders are expected to show high levels of social qualities like being self-sacrificing, concerned for others, emotionally expressive and spontaneous.
In contrast, men are expected to exert power, independence, assertiveness, self-confidence and instrumental competence.
Stereotypical female leaders are connected and collaborative, men are task-oriented and dominating.
Pratch says men’s leadership roles are not as conflicted as those of women because the traits associated with leadership are largely seen as masculine.
She found the only common predictor of leadership between men and women was the ability to respond adaptively to stress and to grow – and that was much greater in women than men.
Women, however, are much more backward in coming forward.
Another studyfound that male MBA graduates started at salary levels almost 8% higher than their female counterparts. The reason? Women are less likely – eight or nine times less likely – to negotiate or ask for a raise.
Women are socialised into forgoing promotion of their own interests in favour of focusing on the needs of others. Many companies’ cultures are also discouraging because women who promote their own interests are labeled as ‘difficult’ or ‘pushy’.
Another unconscious bias has been shown to come from men whose wives do not work outside the home or who work part-time. The men have unfavorable views about women in the workplace.
Researchers conclude that the husbands, who are likely to be in the higher echelons of business, have marriage structures that affect how they view gender roles and categorise others in their economic life outside the home.
Last year a study of mentors at a Wall Street law firm showed they were equally effusive in their verbal praise of men and women mentorees. But, when it came to rating them numerically – which would determine whether they were promoted – women lagged well behind men, even when they displayed the sort of technical competence highly valued in male lawyers.
There is work elsewhere that has shown that women have more mentors but were promoted less often that men because mentors actively sponsor men for promotion far more often that they sponsored women.
Without sponsorship mentoring does not give women the same career benefits as it does to men.
But the bias is not only apparent across genders. Male and female law students have been shown to implicitly associate judges with men, not women, and also associate women with the home and family.
Implicit attitudes are known for being extremely difficult, but not impossible, to shift.
So researchers were surprised to find that participants in that Wall Street law firm study were frequently able to resist their implicit biases and make gender-neutral decisions.
Researchers concluded that their study highlighted conflicting sides of the gender debate: namely the view that the new generation of lawyers will still be affected by unconscious gender bias as opposed to the more optimistic take, which says unconscious bias will diminish as younger, egalitarian lawyers enter the workforce.
Regardless, leadership with strong women role models is indisputably a crucial part of addressing gender bias.
Studies show that that the unconscious stereotyping of women drops if someone has recently been exposed to images of female leaders or even just imagined a powerful woman.
Likewise, social situations populated with powerful and likeable men or women, who are known, or assumed, to hold egalitarian values are another way to reduce unconscious bias and bring out like minds.
As part of the Gender Equality Program, Corrs is indeed fortunate to be participating in Unconscious Bias training at Melbourne Business School.
The training targets the development and use of leadership, decision-making and communication skills to reduce unconscious bias and acceptance of gender equality in the workplace.
Before the training participants are tested for personality and cognitive abilities which include their belief about the nature of human qualities, such as extraversion; their belief about whether people believe intelligence or being smart can be changed through learning and training or not. Attitudes to age, religion, politics, family dynamics, education, race, ethnicity and work.
But recognising and changing mental models, beliefs and assumptions is one of seven areas targeted by the Gender Equality Project.
The others include:
And last, but of great importance, the issue of targets and quotas.
Last year the Australian Securities Exchange Corporate Governance Council introduced new guidelines on gender diversity. These recommend that listed companies establish measurable targets to improve the proportion of women employees and disclose the state of play and those targets in their annual reports.
Some companies have already shown their commitment and EOWA (Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace) has noted an increase in mentoring and talent management programs.
There are changes underway but, inevitably they will take time. In that context it is worth noting that 2011 was the 25th anniversary of Affirmative Action legislation being introduced.
The question is how long are we prepared to wait?
The European Union is currently considering introducing quotas. This follows a review instigated by the senior justice official in the EU, Viviane Reding.
Earlier this year, Ms. Reding said that she didn’t like quotas but she liked what quotas did – namely open the way to equality and break through the glass ceiling.
Countries with quotas get results.
Norway, which is not a member of the EU, introduced quotas a decade ago. The number of women on boards has gone from 9% in 2003 to 40% now.
More than a year ago France introduced legislation. Since then the number of women on French boards since has jumped from 12 to 22%. Italy and Belgium have mandated that one-third of boards be female and there have been, or are currently, moves in other countries.
Board room quotas work. They improve governance and, over time, they change thinking.
It comes back to seeing women in leadership positions as a major way of inspiring confidence in other women and of breaking down hidden bias and dispelling myths.
In the interest of speaking a little from personal experience, I will mention just a little about the challenges faced by my own organiation.
Legal work environments are renowned for their punishing work demands, fierce competition and billable hours - along with a disturbing rate of attrition.
Women make up 70 percent of graduate lawyers employed by Corrs, but only 21% of partners.
We are well aware of the problems that stem from old boys’ clubs and a work-life challenge that can be difficult for any employees, let alone those trying to juggle work and home responsibilities.
Trying to shift the seemingly intractable problems issue is a key part of our strategy to 2015.
Despite being a private partnership, we have recently become the first law firm to commit to the ASX Corporate Governance Guidelines with a public diversity strategy. It has three main objectives:
The business case is a given. The attrition rate affects, not only individuals, but the firm’s culture, its reputation as an employer, the ability to manage and maintain client relationship, the store of retained knowledge and the ability to win work from clients with a higher representation of senior women.
Some things we have achieved already. Women make up one third of our board and an extraordinarily talented Chair in Teresa Handicott.
But we know the Board is only part of the picture. By 2015 we want to see women in 40% of our senior management roles and 35% of women in the partnership.
We are working to lower attrition rates by supporting women who return from parental leave and by providing genuine mainstreamed flexible career paths.
To that end, we have increased parental leave from 14 to 18 weeks and introduced flexibility training for partners and managers to increase their capacity to manage flexible working arrangements.
We want to integrate flexible work practices seamlessly into the fabric of the firm and we encourage our high performing women, like Teresa Handicott and Christine Covington, to be more visible, as an example to other women.
And there’s always more to do. This year we will broaden our parental leave policy with new policies to further assist women returning to work while still breastfeeding their babies.
Change, as always, is a meandering journey of challenges and frustrations. But logic and humanity dictates there’s only one way to go.
Resistance comes, in part from male and female cultures which do, in some respects, have elements of John Gray’s Venus and Mars.
But I hope the endgame is more aligned with Joss Whedon, in that one day it won’t be a question of why we need gender equality.
Instead it will be so much a part of every workplace, that the right question to ask will be why not?
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