Paying lip service to equality doesn’t pay off

KATHRYN FAGG
Kathryn Fagg is member of the Reserve Bank board and of Chief Executive Women’s Council

MELANIE SANDERS
Melanie Sanders is a partner in Bain and Co.

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We can all agree that the current statistics on the proportion of women at the top of Australian organisations are woeful. A female executive remains a rare sight in the C-suite of ASX 200 companies and men are nine times more likely to hold executive leadership positions than women.

However, there is less agreement on what gets in the way of women’s progression. There are a range of myths. Main myth one: women are not ambitious. Main myth two: skilled women are in scarce supply.

A few years ago Bain and Company and Chief Executive Women (CEW) embarked on a joint myth-busting mission to uncover the facts about what needs to change to improve gender diversity in the workplace. We have just completed the fourth in a series of surveys of Australian executives.

When you ask men what gets in the way of women reaching the top of their organisations, 60 per cent will tell you that the challenge of managing the competing priorities of family and child rearing is the key barrier. Yet, ask women the same question and the answer is poles apart. More than 80 per cent of women report that two key factors hold them back: the perception a women’s leadership style is different; and that men are more likely to value and promote those whose perspectives are similar to their own.

This is a tough issue to solve and not one that can be easily addressed with a top-down corporate mandate or by introducing new “female-friendly” policies. Overcoming these biases, whether they are conscious or unconscious, requires creating a culture that genuinely values and embraces diversity of opinion and leadership style. This is not easy. It takes deep commitment and a certain amount of mature self-confidence on the part of a leader to accept the need for culture change of this scope and to genuinely promote it.

It is hardly surprising that visible leadership from the CEO is the overwhelming response from women to the question of what creates equal opportunity in the workplace. Yet, fewer than 50 per cent of women we surveyed agree with the statement: “The leadership team at my company or organisation has made gender parity a visible priority.”

So what is it that women are looking for from their leaders as it relates to gender diversity? Is this best addressed by highly symbolic actions from the CEO, such as publicly committing to diversity targets? More than 1500 women and men took part in the latest Bain/CEW research [we will add a hyperlink] which drilled down into the impact of a CEO’s behaviour on gender diversity.

It turns out that the most powerful action a CEO can take to create a positive work environment for women is to walk the walk – be a role-model for inclusive behaviour. And this does not mean being the kind of leader who espouses work-life balance, but in reality jokes about how travel means you never have to attend parent-teacher nights.

Women are looking for their CEO to demonstrate that they value diverse ideas and opinions. Women want their leaders to talk and act in a way that is inclusive to both men and women. And, there is no better example of inclusive behaviour than a track record of appointing or sponsoring women into senior roles.

Our research shows that women are significantly more likely to promote their organisation as a good place to work when the number of women in executive leadership reaches critical mass of at least 25 per cent. Inclusive behaviour by the CEO is most correlated with how women and men feel about their organisation as a place to work and as a place where women can progress.

When done well, inclusive behaviour creates promoters among both female and male employees. CEOs who do not handle this well can create detractors among their staff and will find their best talent of both genders heading out the door.

So what does the inclusive behaviour look like? Inclusive behaviour, or the lack of it, is most often evident in management meetings and during promotion “windows”. This is when and where jostling for position and attempts to catch the CEO’s eye are at their greatest.

Time and again women we have surveyed tell us their contributions in meetings have been overlooked. As Martin Parkinson, the out-going Treasury Secretary, said recently at a Chief Executive Women event, real progress in increasing gender diversity at senior levels in Treasury began to be made when there was more genuine “listening” in meetings. When everyone’s voice was heard, he said, it immediately led to better problem solving.

When job promotions become available, inclusive leaders reach out to those who are skilled and ready and encourage to them apply. They don’t wait for people to put themselves forward – because often you can wait forever for a woman to do that. Women, no matter how talented and experienced they are, are much harsher judges of their preparedness for a role than their male colleagues.

Everyone has experienced the impact a good or bad leader can have on us as individuals in the workplace. They can be instrumental in making us feel more energised and inspired to give our best, to take risks and to stretch ourselves.

And that has to be good for the bottom line. Amplify that energy across an entire workforce, and higher employee engagement can be a powerful competitive advantage. No CEO in business today can afford to pay lip service to gender equality.