tip off

Stop talking about gender diversity and actually hire women

Women are still woefully underrepresented on Australian boards and at the top Australian companies. Women’s Agenda’s Georgina Dent says the solution isn’t a best-practice resources kit — it’s hiring women.

In 1993 American executive Bob Joss arrived in Australia to head up Westpac. Ann Sherry, the chief executive of Carnival Australia, who worked for Westpac at the time, clearly remembers one of his first questions. “Where are all the women?” Having spotted a problem, he didn’t spend too long deliberating over a solution.

What he did was say to everyone on his executive, ‘The next job you hire for in your team, find a woman’,” Sherry told Crikey sister publication Women’s Agenda. “And amazingly, they did! Women were found.”

More than two decades have intervened since, but most Australian chief executives still have cause, if they’re so inclined, to ask the same question. Unfortunately few have chosen to address it. Despite the rhetoric and the research, both of which overwhelmingly support the case for diversity, Australian women are still woefully represented in leadership positions.

There are seven female chief executives in the ASX 200. In percentage terms that means females have just 3.5% of these positions. Women hold 17.6% of board positions in ASX 200 companies. The Australian Census of Women in Leadership from 2012 shows that females held less than 10% of key management positions in ASX 200 companies.

In every single industry there is a pay gap between men and women. This is, in some part, because in almost every industry men dominate the more senior, better-paid roles.

Perhaps what is most disconcerting about this picture is the fact these numbers have barely moved in 20 years. This is not a new problem; it’s an old one that hasn’t been fixed. And it’s time to seriously scrutinise why that is.

On Monday, The Australian Financial Review reported the government is considering cutting back the gender reporting rules, in particular, applying the gender reporting rules only to those companies that employ more than 1000 people,

Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott came out in support of the proposed amendments to reduce the reporting requirements, issuing this statement to Women’s Agenda:

The BCA’s chief concern has always been that it will divert resources from the real effort being made by companies to change recruitment and retention processes, performance management and other practices that are holding back individual women and the Australian economy as a whole.”

By comparison, the chief concern of anyone who has familiarised themselves, even fleetingly, with the intricacies of gender equality in the workplace is that the “real effort” being made by Australian companies in this space is wholly inadequate. How else can we explain the fact the dial hasn’t moved?

Feminist and academic Eva Cox says the issue of gender reporting is complex and accepts having a substantive conversation about what is reported and how it’s used is necessary. “One of the real problems in collecting data is making sure you use it because otherwise people get sceptical about it,” she said. “Perhaps there should be more discussion about what is collected and whether the agency has the appropriate resources to make effective use of it.

We’ve had this data since 1994, and people haven’t acted on. Things are not shifting, and in some areas it’s getting worse. Australia has one of the most gender stratified workforces in the world.”

Cox acknowledges one of the shortcomings of data relating to gender equality is that it doesn’t capture the qualitative factors of culture and attitude that we know contribute to the gender divide. Even so, she says the case for having data in this field is critical and is alarmed by suggestions that companies with fewer than 1000 employees might be exempt from reporting.

We need this data, any attempt to curtail that needs to be opposed. In particular we should object to the move from 100 to 1000 because there are relatively few organisations that employ that many people, it isn’t the bulk of the information,” Cox said. “I am deeply suspicious about why the government wants to reduce it.”

In July last year, the BCA announced it was undertaking a new project to help advance women into senior executive positions. It set a target of achieving 50:50 gender representation in a decade. The path suggested — but did not mandate — a best-practice resource kit to help its members achieve this goal. The information contained within that kit is not dissimilar to the resources and information that the Workplace Gender Equality Agency has been providing — free — for years.

At the time, one sceptic asked me why I thought the BCA had finally taken this action. There was nothing new, other than the prospect of a new government, and the data hadn’t changed, so why now? I sincerely hope it wasn’t the prospect of a new government removing “red tape” around gender reporting that motivated it to act.

Any person or organisation genuinely committed to achieving gender equality can surely recognise the “red tape” in reporting around gender is actually part of the solution, not the problem. Of course Bob Joss had another solution for this problem that might well dampen the need for reporting; mandating the hiring of women. Somehow I doubt the government or the BCA would support that.

*This article was originally published at Women’s Agenda

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