Only three years ago, Australian business effectively practised a form of gender apartheid, where occasional acts of patronage or spontaneous token gestures characterised the journeys of those women who managed to get to the top. Whilst all women who passed through such chance openings were high performers, the circumstances of the advancement of each one was unique, and not reflective of any systemic rules for professional advancement of a woman’s career in business. As a result, many meritorious women are still being left behind because no reasonable career development pathways are open to them. For the majority, a gender apartheid lock-down is applied via the glass ceiling, glass birdcage (a high level job with nothing to do), or the glass cliff-face (promotion into a ‘doomed-to-fail’ role).
Australia’s 2010 record was world’s worst practice amongst mature developed nations – barely 8.3% of ASX200 directors, 2.5% of chairs and 8% of key management roles were held by women. Last month Company Director advised that board posts held by women had reached 16% of ASX200 Directors, 3.5% of chairs and 9.7% of key managers. Despite these critical gains, gender fatigue seems to be settling in as the 2011 peak of 28% of new female board appointees has now fallen to 16% , implying the peak average has now plateaued. In fact overall we are slipping backwards. Between 2011 and 2012, Australia’s rankings for ‘economic participation’ (meaning access to senior roles) in The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report fell from 12th to 22nd and Australia’s overall ranking is 25th.
Fortunately in the last three years, some critical exemplars have emerged on independent gender scorecards. To take one example, the Women on Boards group recently published a gender diversity Traffic Light Index for 82 ASX listed companies. A Green Traffic Light ranking reflects comprehensive reporting and positive outcomes but it’s held by only 10 companies including Telstra with about 70,000 people, and the four big banks each having approximately 40,000 employees. Sustaining gender equity commitments across such large workforces is no mean feat, and is characterised by comprehensive policy commitments and actions from the top throughout each organisation, with clear objectives linked to individual and team KPIs, and open communication channels for grievance resolution. This includes ‘no tolerance’ outcomes for any self-appointed bullet proof blokes who try to reinvent themselves with weasel words following discriminatory utterances. Our nation has had more than enough of that behavior recently. More importantly perhaps, these five corporate exemplars weed out the hidden practices of gender bias by writing clear steps and accountabilities into all basic human resource processes of job advertisement, selection, induction and rotation across the across the corporate levels from front line to the top job. The HR function assures the quality of decisions that emerge from these processes, including fairness of the outcomes. Women now occupy 35-40% of their senior management roles. Westpac recently set a target of 50%, which is a long way from the 9.7% national average. The demonstrable business results are showing in the performance of these five companies over the last three years to early May, relative to the All Ordinaries Index: Telstra +50% ; Westpac +25%; ANZ +22%; CommBank & NAB +20% each.
International evidence from a Catalyst study of Fortune 500 companies and McKinsey’s research into US and European companies in 2010 and 2012, confirm that boards and organisations with strong standards and commitments on diversity outperform others.
Gender equity is simply good business. In November 2009, Goldman Sachs and J B Were produced an economic report that estimated gender bias in Australia was costing the economy 11% potential GDP, which is a massive $154 billion in lost economic opportunity or $7000 for every Australian. In a way that’s the problem, and also the defensive protector of our male board inertia – the opportunity loss is not transparent and so it’s easier to shirk.
In these last three years Company Director also reports that not-for-profit enterprises, universities, government board and senior executive groups are lifting their game with female representation generally in the 35-40% range. That’s up about 10 per cent from a few years ago.
So who is dragging the chain?
The other organisational group alive and well in Australian business today is the ‘much ado about nothing clan of topside chaps’. Here the gender apartheid approach seems to suit life and its current power vestings. The WGEA 2012 Australian Census showed 38% ASX 200 and 56% of ASX 500 companies have no female directors. Reading the board lists on the 50 or so leading companies in this group is fairly depressing, and makes one feel their major concession to diversity is when one of them decides to grow a beard. Australia has a rich social and economic history well characterised by a ‘fair go’ that is not reflected in the complexion of many ASX listed boards, particularly but not exclusively in the area of gender equity.
More importantly Australia’s society and economy are paying a big price for this form of corporate sloth. Our gender exemplars show the rewards for positive and holistic actions are substantial, pervasive and achievable very quickly. Those muttering loudest against gender quotas need to get off the fence, climb on their bikes and talk to the gender exemplars about realising an equivalent value potential by rebuilding their company leadership so that it truly resembles their customer and shareholder profile.
Peter Wilson AM is chairman of the Australian Human Resources Institute.