Only three years ago, Australian business effectively practised a form of gender apartheid, where token gestures characterised the journeys of those women who got to the top.
While all the women who passed through such chance openings were high performers, their circumstances were unique, and not reflective of systemic rules for the professional advancement of women. 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 among mature developed nations – barely 8.3 per cent of ASX 200 directors, 2.5 per cent of chairs and 8 per cent of key management roles were held by women.
Last month, the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) advised that board posts held by women had reached 16 per cent of ASX 200 directors, 3.5 per cent of chairs and 9.7 per cent of key managers.
Despite these gains, gender fatigue seems to be settling in: the 2011 peak of 28 per cent of new female board appointees has fallen to 16 per cent. Overall we are slipping backwards. Between 2011 and 2012, Australia’s rank for ‘economic participation’ (meaning access to senior roles) in The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report fell from 12th to 22nd.
Fortunately, in the past three years some critical exemplars have. 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.
These include Telstra with about 70,000 people, and the four big banks, each having around 40,000 employees. Sustaining gender equity commitments across such large workforces is no mean feat. It is characterised by comprehensive policy commitments and actions from the top down, with clear objectives linked to individual and team KPIs, and open communication channels for grievance resolution.
More importantly, these five corporations weed out the hidden practices of gender bias by writing clear steps and accountabilities into all HR processes. This includes job advertisement, selection, induction and rotation, from front line to the top job. Women now occupy 35 to 40 per cent of their senior management roles.
Westpac has set a target of 50 per cent, which is a great deal higher than the 9.7 per cent national average. The demonstrable business results show in the performance of these companies over the three years to early May 2013, relative to the All Ordinaries Index: Telstra +50 per cent; Westpac +25 per cent; ANZ +22 per cent; CBA and NAB +20 per cent 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 commitments on diversity outperform others.
Gender bias costs
In November 2009, Goldman Sachs and JB Were produced an economic report that estimated gender bias in Australia was costing the economy $154 billion in lost economic opportunity. In a way that’s the problem – the opportunity loss is not transparent, so it’s easier to shirk.
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.
The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) 2012 Census showed 38 per cent of ASX 200 and 56 per cent of ASX 500 companies have no female directors. Reading the board lists of these companies is depressing and makes one feel that their major concession to diversity is when one decides to grow a beard.
Australia has a rich social and economic history characterised by a ‘fair go’ that is not reflected in the complexion of many ASX-listed boards.
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. Those muttering loudest against gender quotas need to get off the fence and talk to the gender exemplars about realising potential by rebuilding their company leadership so that it truly resembles their customer and shareholder profile.