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Do Australia’s leaders mean what they say about gender diversity?

Do Australia’s leaders mean what they say about gender diversity?
There’s plenty of talk about committing to gender diversity coming from the top
CEW Views do australias leaders mean what they say

There’s plenty of talk about committing to gender diversity coming from the top echelons of Australian organisations. And that’s very welcome, not just to the Chief Executive Women I represent, but to anyone in this country who believes that increasing the participation of women in work is an economic imperative.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency is also doing important work capturing hard numbers on women’s participation from companies through gender data reporting, and we look forward to seeing the first set of results in November.

But there’s another less tangible piece to the puzzle of creating equal opportunities for women and men at all levels of Australian organisations. That is the actions and behaviours of the CEO. Chief Executive Women believe it is now time to gather the data on exactly where good intentions meet concrete action on diversity.

Does the CEO have a track record of ensuring women are appointed to senior line roles?
The CEO’s office is where the real decisions that drive change are made. Whether a CEO knows it or not, people at all levels of the organisation don’t just listen to his words – they watch their leader’s every move looking for direction. And I am using “his” for a reason – most CEOs in Australia are men. There are currently only seven women CEOs in the ASX200.

In the past three years, CEW and the global consulting firm, Bain and Company, have conducted three major surveys into different aspects of gender diversity in organisations. We now believe it’s time to ask Australians whether the leaders – in business, government, academia or the not-for-profits – are really tackling the tough issues around gender equity.

In our new survey on leadership we are looking for answers to questions about inclusive cultures. Has the CEO made achieving gender parity a key strategic priority for the company? Has the CEO linked executive bonuses to achievements in gender diversity? Does the CEO have a track record of ensuring women are appointed to senior line roles?

The survey (now closed), drills down into how a leader’s actions and behaviour affect the organisation’s engagement, performance and business indicators. It is the first of its kind in Australia and we hope leaders everywhere will get on board, recommend it to their staff, and help us paint an accurate picture of CEO behaviour.

The data we gather will be invaluable. I know better than many how easy it can be for CEOs of large organisations to operate in a bubble with little or no genuine feedback about their personal performance as leaders.

When I became a CEO in the mid-90s, I was the first female to run the company and one of the few female CEOs in Australia. I found myself trying to transform a business in a very macho industry. The only way I knew how to do it was to look for role models among those men who had gone before me. What I saw was the take-no-prisoners school of management, so I did what I thought I needed to do to be taken seriously in a performance-driven environment. I toughened up, tightened my control of everything around me and left nothing to chance.

It was a huge mistake that paralysed my leadership team. I was working against my very own principles around female participation and I wasn’t being authentic to myself.

The bubble burst when I took on board some strong feedback. I stopped trying to be the smartest person in the room, took off the tough mask, and learned to be comfortable being a female CEO. It unleashed the potential of my staff and led to a more inclusive culture.

Ensuring that CEOs understand what it means to drive positive change around gender diversity is one of the key reasons we are asking the hard questions around leadership. It will in some ways be a national 360 degree survey of how Australian leaders think and act around women’s increased participation.

The role of the CEO is to change the dynamic and release the potential of everyone in the organisation. Everyone comes to work wanting to make a contribution. And for that to happen they need the kind of leader who brings out the best in all their people.

Have your say on how effective the actions of leaders throughout Australia’s corporate, government, academic and non-for-profit organisations have been in working towards gender parity (survey now closed).

This article was published on Women’s Agenda on 20 June, 2014.

Christine Christian


Christine Christian is Non Executive Company Director, ME Bank Limited, Lonsec Fiscal, Powerlinx Inc., State Library of Victoria


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