Leadership | Diversity | Inclusion

Women in leadership - not just a women’s issue

South Australia’s CEOs will need to take charge of removing roadblocks that prevent women from participating fully in the workforce to address skills shortages and boost their bottom line, a CEDA forum in Adelaide has heard.

South Australia's CEOs will need to take charge of removing roadblocks that prevent women from participating fully in the workforce to address skills shortages and boost their bottom line, a CEDA forum in Adelaide has heard.

Speakers at the Women and Leadership event emphasised that having women return to the workforce and succeed in senior management could not simply be a "women's issue".

The forum heard government and business are adopting three main strategies to address the problem of low female workforce participation in South Australia:

  1. Providing affordable, quality childcare to enrich the lives of children.
  2. Engaging CEOs to change workplace culture so that people who take on caring roles continue to have meaningful careers.
  3. Implementing programs to mentor women towards management positions and in non-traditional careers such as engineering.

Minister for Employment Participation and Minister for Early Childhood and Childcare, Kate Ellis said that while the issue of quality, accessible and affordable childcare affected both men and women, it remained a particularly important issue for women's participation in paid work.

Many myths surround affordability and access to childcare, but families now spent less of their disposable income on childcare - down to 7.5 per cent from 13 per cent of disposable income in 2004 as the government had increased the childcare rebate from 30 per cent to 50 per cent, Ms Ellis said.

Contrary to stories circulating about long waiting lists for childcare places, the number of childcare places had increased by 36 per cent since 2006, with 500 new services established in areas of demand in the past 12 months, she said.

"I'm proud of the fact that we have doubled investment in childcare assistance. I'm not going to say that we have the silver bullet that will make it easy for families but any policy debate has to be based on facts,"she said.

She dismissed popular calls to make childcare tax deductible and to subsidise nannies as poor policy, arguing that these policies would leave most families worse off, providing most benefit to high income earners who paid the highest tax rates.

"If you asked just about any woman in Australia if she wanted a nanny courtesy of the Australian Government she'd probably say yes. In fact she'd probably say yes whether she has children or not. But that is exactly the problem with making vague political promises and not being upfront with people about details - it sets unrealistic expectations," she said.

Recent improvements in childcare costs and access had been matched by quality improvements in staff-child ratios and the qualifications of childcare workers, she said.

"We have moved on from thinking that childcare as pure babysitting - it is about a professional workforce, working within educational frameworks and shaping the lives and development outcomes of our kids," she said.

"The huge benefits that come with women's increased participation in the workforce and the educational benefits of child care mean that improving child care affordability must be a priority for Government."

The forum also heard that a group of South Australia's senior business leaders - the Chiefs for Gender Equity roundtable - had been established to work with the Office for Women to identify and remove the hidden barriers for women, particularly in senior management. It brings together leaders across sectors including engineering, mining, accountancy and law to re-think organisational structures and ways of working that make it difficult to juggle work and family.

Acting South Australian Commissioner for Equal Opportunity, Anne Burgess said engaging CEOs to change workplace culture to ensure that men and women who care for children could have a "serious career" was critical to boosting workforce participation.

"We recognised that things wouldn't change for women until they change for men," she said.

"We know that in South Australia we have one of the highest levels of education for women but one of the lowest female workforce participation rates."

"The CEOs are taking it (the roundtable) very seriously because they know that it makes good business sense.

"We know that when women are in senior leadership positions, the business's bottom line improves."

Elders, General Manager of Commercial Operations, Miriam Silva said South Australian businesses, such as Elders, were only just beginning to address the gender imbalance in senior management in a systematic way.

"In the past 10 years, South Australia has had one of the lowest rates of participation for women in the workforce compared to other states - about 1.5 to two per cent behind other states," she said.

At Elders, while 35 per cent of the 3000 employees are women, most are at lower levels of pay and responsibility, Ms Silva said.
"In terms of line management (at Elders) women are few and far between," she said.

Elders had begun the process of improving gender diversity under CEO Malcolm Jackman, establishing a committee, a gender equity policy and promoting flexibility in the workplace, she said.

But Ms Silva also said: "Having a mentor to coach and to encourage women to apply for positions does help with workforce participation."

"A woman will look at a position and think 'I've only got 80 per cent of what they are looking for so I won't apply'. A guy will look at it and say, 'I've got 30 per cent of what they are looking for so I am going to apply'," she said.

Parsons Brinckerhoff, Regional General Manager of engineering firm and Engineers Australia, Chair Dr David Cruickshanks-Boyd said improving gender equity was particularly important in engineering where there was a strong demand for skilled employees.

Over the past 10 years, women have accounted for 15 per cent of engineering students and only six per cent of employed engineers. Dr Cruickshanks-Boyd said in his own company there was only one woman on the Executive Director Team - the Director of People.

"We have coalesced around the idea that (gender diversity) is not only the right thing - it's the smart thing in a business sense," he said. "We realised we were drawing our senior managers from only half of the workforce - it really hit home."

The company had initially established a women's network with director-level sponsors but the "key learning from year one is that men are not engaged in women's issues," he said. This group has since been replaced with a diversity council, sponsored by the Managing Director, which has gathered metrics, implemented an accelerated development program for women and promoted its flexible work policy, he said.

"We are seeing a much greater uptake (of the flexible work arrangements) by men and women and we have had a 50 per cent increase in the women returning from maternity leave," Dr Cruickshanks-Boyd said.

Uplifted by this initial success, the company is taking a more aggressive approach to involving women in management, setting targets to have 15 per cent of women in the directorate (up from five per cent) and 20 per cent in senior management (up from 10 per cent) over the next two years, he said.

Having a strategy to promote gender diversity in management that is owned by the Managing Director and the Directorate is "the smart thing to do," he said.