Gender diversity needs to be viewed as a commercial imperative a CEDA audience has been told in Sydney at the first NSW Women in Leadership series event for 2012.
Outlining why diversity matters, Independent Non-executive Director, Carolyn Kay highlighted that women need to be career resilient, "it not only matters to have female participation in the workforce, but it's important for women to be at decision making levels to help reshape the culture of organisations," she said.
"It's important for the future economic health of Australia to encourage all possible and willing participants into the paid workforce to increase the tax base, support the ageing population and lift the household saving rate.
"We lose so many women as they climb up the seniority pyramid because we are not capitalising on the investment we make in women's education and in their professional development.
"It's beneficial to have diversity at all levels of seniority to reflect the community and bring together different experiences to achieve better outcomes."
She said an unconscious bias still exists in some organisations and this can significantly affect hiring decisions, promotions and organisational diversity. It can also have long-term effects.
"[A lack of gender diversity] has practical implications on Australia's standing in the international community. It diminishes the attractiveness of Australia as a potential destination for talented immigrants," she said.
Ms Kay also outlined CBA's diversity strategy which has been successful in creating a culture of safety and well-being with organisational support for cultural diversity and flexibility.
CBA has implemented a number of initiatives including a diversity council chaired by the CEO, a board diversity policy where the CEO and executive team have key performance indicators (KPIs) linked to gender diversity goals and diversity leadership targets.
Reibey Institute, Executive Director, Tina Brothers noted that well-managed and diverse teams have better outcomes.
"Companies with three or more women directors outperform those with none and provide higher return on investment," she said.
Despite this in 2010 only 7.1 per cent of the ASX top 500 had female directors on their boards and 323 companies had no women on their boards.
All speakers highlighted the need for organisations to have a diversity strategy to achieve change.
Independent Non-executive Chairman, H Kevin McCann AM who is part of the program, "Male Champions of Change", which is committed to public advocacy on gender diversity, said there are three phases to a diversity strategy:
"Most of us are in phase one. This is characterised by programs to support women. Yet, experience shows that this has a low impact in women's representation. You want to get out of phase one and into phase two," he said.
When questioned about how to get more men engaged on the issue, Mr McCann said it was about men influencing other men.
"People like me should be looking at business sectors where women are not represented on boards and continue the path of public advocacy," said.
"Influencing CEOs on diversity issues is key - make sure you are at least in phase one.
"Getting from phase one to two is hard, CEOs must be committed. Regular reporting to the board on outcomes achieved rather than programs is important. Phase two needs to look at KPIs with management setting concrete targets."
To assist women in management, Mr McCann highlighted that critical mass is essential.
"It's much easier to operate with effective diversity, when two or three women are on a board, gender disappears," he said.
"We should aspire to have 33 per cent of a leadership team consisting of women."
Mr McCann also emphasised the importance for Australian corporations to harness talented women as it can increase productivity.
When asked about the future, Ms Kay said progress is being made and change is occurring.
"With the increased focus on diversity as a strategy, opportunities are opening up for women. Workplaces are being adapted to accommodate a more diverse operating environment," Ms Kay said.
"As much as the onus is on organisations and their leaders to implement change, there is also an onus on individual women to help make the change work, and be responsible for future generations of women who may also want to participate in the workforce."