Leadership | Diversity | Inclusion

Highlights, insights, best one liners - Women in Leadership Queensland

New thinking, cut-through honesty and business insights ended Queensland's first Women in Leadership series - much in the spirit in which the series had been launched 12 months ago.

New thinking, cut-through honesty and business insights ended Queensland's first Women in Leadership series - much in the spirit in which the series had been launched 12 months ago.

The 2010-11 series closed with an invitation only sunset forum where 50 CEDA guests gathered to hear the stories, advice and arguments of three speakers on the topic of 'Developing women in non-traditional industries'.

The increased presence of women in non-traditional roles has enhanced operations and bottom lines argued Simone Wetzler, Executive General Manager People, Safety and Environment, Thiess.

The Women in Leadership series, which CEDA runs in a number of states, ran for the first time in Queensland through 2010-11. Public and member-only events covered the business and economic benefits of diversity, the challenges of leading change and the workforce imperative for ensuring the engagement and retention of senior women.

Through this series CEDA has been acknowledged as providing thought leadership on a complex and long discussed topic, providing new insights and a forum for debate for CEDA members, trustees and guests.

In Queensland CEDA will continue the Women in Leadership series in 2011-2012 with public and member events. The first event of the 2011-2012 series will be held in August and will build on the thought leadership provided by leading speakers in series one.

What follows is a reflection and summary of the concerns, solutions and insights offered so far.

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner Responsible for Age Discrimination, Australian Human Rights Commission, spoke in February this year. She rolled out the facts: Australia is educating women better and longer than any other country in the world; the majority of Australian university graduates are women; women start with the same level of education, intelligence and commitment but they are missing in action at the senior levels of the workforce, across every sector; in Australia 59 per cent of women are in paid work; women in senior management is trending backwards.

"We have a huge wastage of female talent in Australia", Elizabeth said.  "A failure to change the picture of leadership in Australian business will put us at a disadvantage on the international stage - this is about using all the talent available in this country."

But she said, "Being convinced of the benefits of gender equality in the workplace and actually delivering on that conviction are two completely different things".

Elizabeth outlined what she sees as the barriers to gender equality and to equal representation of women in senior leadership: belief barriers, cultural barriers and structural barriers, all of which she said require systemic intervention.

In response to the suggestion that there had been progress and that the topic was tired she responded: "We have been aware of and working on this issue, the issue of gender equity and representation of women for 100 years and still there is unfinished business."

She said that if it was easy to fix it would have been fixed by now.

Elizabeth closed with the argument that to meet the talent demand and to know that change has been made a critical mass must be reached - "critical mass is 40 per cent - within five years we have to have reached critical mass". 

Elizabeth was joined on stage by Giam Swiegers, Chief Executive Officer, Deloitte Australia and said that it was "important to hear strong male leaders speaking out on equality".

She applauded the leadership that Giam and many other senior men had provided on the issue and in removing barriers, saying, "we will only see gains when it is men working with men to solve these problems".

Giam Swiegers, Chief Executive Officer, Deloitte Australia spoke about a critical mass, but perhaps of a different type. Speaking about the programs and initiatives put in place at Deloitte he said: "We only had one goal and that was to get our unfair share of female talent, it was clearly going to give us a competitive advantage."

Being asked what it was that would help the firm outperform competition the clear answer for Giam and for Deloitte was "make the most of all available talent so as not to suffer from the skills shortage".

With that objective clear, talking about history or complaining about barriers was not productive. Change, commitment and action were called for.

"To me if you walk into my office and say that you know it's going the take two generations for this culture to change, what I hear is someone saying they are not going to do anything about this on Monday," he said.

Like many of the Women in leadership series speakers an opinion was sought, and if not expressed then drawn out in question time, on quotas. Was quotas part of Deloitte's plan?

"I'm not a fan of quotas, I come from South Africa and quotas have a very particular meaning there, but I do believe that if you are serious you have to have targets. Without targets I can't see a measure for success and neither can I see a clear definition of failure," he said.

Aware that recruitment and promotion were only part of what was required to reach and maintain targets Giam talked about retention, about mentoring programs, options for mentors who were not line of sight supervisors, part time work, the applauding of part time workers as valuable contributors, and pushing back against perceptions of part time workers as only being part workers. On mentoring he described the value of mentors as not only progressing people but also as identifying when not to progress.

"There is research out of the United Kingdom on the glass cliff. Not the glass ceiling, the glass cliff. It investigates why the failure rates of female executives is higher than for their male counterparts. It found that without a mentor, when high risk assignments come up, women take them. They have no one to say 'don't touch that one, wait, there will be better opportunities'."

In one of the strongest business benefits statements of the series Giam posed the simple question: What if you do nothing?

"If nothing else compels you that you have to figure out how to get and make the most of female talent, it's the simple fact that today, of commerce students graduating from Australian universities less than 15 per cent are Caucasian males... organisations that are entirely dependent on their ability to manage Caucasian males will soon face a serious challenge."

Earlier in the Women in Leadership series, in November 2010, Catherine Fox, Author and Journalist, and Jane Caro, Lecturer and Author, presented their thoughts on women in leadership and mythbusted their way through many women and women in leadership myths.

Catherine's seven myths and her rounding rebuttal of them included:

  • That this is a meritocracy - the fact is that merit is distributed across the population, across gender and across race. You know that talent can come from anywhere, so if this really was a meritocracy you would not be having this conversation.
  • That this is a meritocracy - then why is there a pay gap. And yes there is a pay gap. The gender pay gap in this country is 18 per cent. The pay gap widens the more senior you become in your organisation. In the financial services sector the pay gap is bigger.
  • Women with children lack ambition - this is said because both men and women have bias about mothers.
  • Women should act more like men - this one is a waste of time and energy, if it was as simple as acting like a man women would have done it and it would have worked. It doesn't work.
  • Quotas and targets are a bad idea - Norway has 46 per cent of women on boards after instituting mandatory quotas, the Norwegian sky has not fallen in and their economy has not shut down.
  • There are not enough women - there is not a supply issue.
  • Time will heal all - well it hasn't, there are fewer women in senior positions than we had four years ago.

Jane Caro trumped Catherine with eight of her own myths and not just about women in the workforce. First she set the scene by being very clear that the term 'work-life balance' was not one she wanted to hear again - ever. "Work is part of life," she said. Her eight myths of women and life were as follows:

  • Women are nicer than men - this is the assumption that women will be kinder and more collaborative. Actually women are as diverse and different as anyone else so do not punish women when they actually are not nice or nicer.
  • Men are inherently dangerous - they are not.
  • Women are their own worst enemy - they are not. Much of what women are dealing with is new, things have changed more for women in the past 30 years than in the last 2000 years; women might make some mistakes, but mostly are doing a fab job.
  • Women are nasty to one another; women don't help each other - just not true.
  • Women aren't funny - only to people who don't get the joke.
  • Women were happier at home, and feminism devalued housewives - double barrel myth - women voted with their feet on this, when universities opened for women, when options other than staying at home opened up, women took up those options in droves, presumably because they were not happier at home.
  • Women are motivated by love not money - women motivated entirely by love end up poor, old and alone.
  • All solved now, feminism worked - Australia is number one in the world in education and number 50 in the world for workplace participation and equity. Not solved.

Not all the myths are yet busted and perhaps the most pervasive will never be, but CEDA audiences appreciated the thought very much, with question time interrogating what myths were most influential and what real myth busting would take.

Earlier in the series Professor Sharon Bell, Professorial Fellow and Senior Program Developer at Melbourne University's LH Martin Institute had done some myth busting of her own with hard, cold facts.

She said that women are participating in undergraduate programs and increasingly in post graduate programs and cited persistent patterns of women's participation by discipline in tertiary education. She did however point to the gaps in change and some traps. "Women are the largest number of research assistants and are poorly represented in elite science and in centres in excellence."

On the question of equity and diversity as a business imperative, she said: "this is about a higher cause, about an ideological movement, it's about fair play and human rights, it is all those things but it is dumb not to recognise this is also a fundamental business decision".

Sharon was positive about women's talent and women's engagement and set the mixed audience a task, "think about the enablers and inhibitors, consider how you might go about changing the organisation culture in which you work and find incremental and systematic ways to move forward".

At the final public event of the 2010-11 series Miriam Silva, General Manager Commercial Operations, Elders Limited spoke about leadership, unconscious bias and her experience as a Muslim woman in executive Australia.

Arguing that the leadership model is the same for men as it is for women, Miriam said the key lessons were: be yourself, which she said is the easiest thing to say and the hardest thing to do, "because to be yourself you have to know yourself"; don't take yourself too seriously; get a mentor; and in the only leadership message that she thought was particularly for women "tell people what you want and what you think,  if you don't tell someone, how can they know what you are thinking?"

Other Queensland 2010-11 Women in leadership series speakers, panellists and moderators included:

  • Peter Ball, People, Performance and Culture Executive Partner, KPMG
  • Tim Biggs, Office Managing Partner, Queensland Deloitte
  • Mara Bun, Chief Executive Officer, Green Cross Australia
  • Karina Collins, Partner, BDO
  • Joanna Glynn, Executive Counsel, Freehills
  • Mark Johnson, CEO and Managing Partner PwC
  • Kerryn Newton, Non-Executive Director Energex Limited Board
  • Varina Nissen, Managing Director, OnTalent
  • Dr Polly Parker, MBA Director, UQ Business School
  • Peter Strachan, CEO, Translink
  • Professor Debbie Terry, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), The University of Queensland
  • Janine Walker, Director, Office of Human Resource Management, Adjunct Professor of Management, Griffith University
  • Simone Wetzler, Executive General Manager People, Safety and Environment, Theiss

The Women in Leadership 2010-11 series in Queensland was supported by CEDA members. Many of the above speakers contributed time and ideas as part of the reference group developing the first series. Trustee functions were hosted by Freehills, Translink, Energex, KPMG, PwC, UQ Business School and Thiess. The series was generously sponsored by Griffith University, NAB and Rio Tinto Alcan.

CEDA members can listen to the full audio of the Queensland Women in leadership public event speakers here.

The Women in Leadership series will continue in Queensland in 2011-12. The series will include four public events and two CEDA member trustee functions. The 2011-12 series is sponsored by CEDA members Griffith University Business School, KPMG and NAB.


By Kyl Murphy, Queensland State Director, CEDA