CEOs must tackle pervasive gender bias and find ways to promote women if their businesses are to survive skilled workforce shortages and reach consumers, SA business leaders told a CEDA audience in Adelaide.
The forum heard that a heavy-hitting group of around a dozen business leaders, all men, have joined forces with the Equal Opportunity Commission to form the Chiefs of Gender Equity roundtable to remove the glass ceiling that prevents many women from reaching management positions.
The audience heard that gender equity was an economic survival issue for most Australian companies, particularly in the engineering and rural sectors where there was "a desperate shortage" of skilled labour. Last year, for example, 40 per cent of technically qualified jobs advertised for rural areas went unfilled.
In addition the forum heard:
Elders, CEO and Managing Director, Malcolm Jackman said that while some gender bias in the workplace is unconscious, senior managers must be aware of middle management employees strategically jostling for promotion.
Tactics such as scheduling meetings at 6pm after many working mothers have left for the day aided to exclude part-time workers from decision making, he said.
"I think there's a real opportunity inside organisations to actually start monitoring and changing behaviour of that group of people in the 30-40 age group who are all competing to pop up (in management)," he said.
"I don't think it is unconscious bias a lot of the time, I think it is real conscious bias - there is an opportunity to knock one of my competitors off."
He said CEOs must drive a cultural shift to ensure more women are offered opportunities and mentored into management positions.
"We have a phrase in the company that what interests the boss should fascinate the rest of us...if the boss doesn't do something about it every day of the week, nothing will happen," Mr Jackman said.
In many industries where there were few women, promoting gender equity might mean recruiting women to middle positions and fostering them through the business with lateral promotions, he said.
Parsons Brinckerhoff, SA Regional Director, Dr David Cruickshanks-Boyd said organisations needed to set targets to ensure a greater proportion of women returned after maternity leave and reached senior roles and board positions.
"In any organisation you have to measure, you have to set targets otherwise you won't manage it properly and I think it's as simple as that," Dr Cruickshanks-Boyd said.
"We've set targets ... and we measure our managers' performance against those targets and I think that's essential."
Mentoring for women to encourage them to apply for senior positions and bringing in "inspiring women" to speak as role models were valuable tools in the quest to promote women, he said.
Companies also needed "to solve the problem of flexibility" for men and women, including overcoming the perception among employees that working part-time will hurt their career.
Deloitte, Managing Partner, Rob DiMonte said while studies showed diversity of thought in a company's workforce provided a competitive edge, workforce diversity had to be managed effectively and supported by programs for managers to address unconscious bias.
"The business case for diversity doesn't just rest on having a sprinkle of women and a dab of colour," he said.
"Diversity rests on having an inclusive workplace through diversity of thought."
He said while Australians were generally becoming more exposed to and accepting of diversity, it was unwise to assume unconscious biases will peter out.
"There's still a lot to be done," he said.