Still something wrong with this picture

When there are around 100 women at the top of Australia’s top companies compared to 869 men, it’s clear that gender equity has some way to go. That finding in a recent census by Chief Executive Women of senior executives working in the ASX-200 corporations has raised some serious questions about how to get women into the “line” roles that lead to the CEO’s office. The lack of women effectively means that when women look up, they see few role models to emulate. And when certain big business decisions are made, women are left out in the cold.

Compiled from data collected at the end of August from company websites and the BoardEx business information site, the inaugural CEW census found large gender gaps at senior levels of business management, and particularly those at the sharp end of the of business.

This could be because society still expects women to do much of the work at home leaving them with little time to concentrate on their careers; and because women genuinely underestimate their capabilities whereas men tend to over-estimate theirs (a state of mind recently explored in the book ‘The Confidence Code’ by two senior journalists, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman; and simply because men are entrenched in many of the senior positions.

According to the CEW census, there are roughly 100 women in a total of 869 line roles in executive leadership teams in the ASX-200 companies. Senior “functional” roles, by way of comparison, which might be in human resources or in legal affairs, are usually held by a slightly higher proportion of women – as high as 30 per cent, according to the census.

Line roles, CEW says, are “those that directly drive key commercial outcomes in a business and usually involve profit and loss accountability. Line roles represent the most significant pipeline for the ASX-200 CEOs of the future”.

The best industries for gender equality, the census found, were telecommunications and real estate, and the worst were materials, utilities and energy – with 95 per cent or more line roles filled by men. Even the industries with the highest level of women in line roles generally have fewer than one in five, the census found.

Gender equality advocates are pleased that gender equity is at least now seen as an important issue to tackle, and various organisations, from the CEW group to the Australian government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency, continue to push firms to hire and promote more senior women executives with the aim of achieving gender parity. But when only about five per cent of the CEOs of ASX-200 companies are women, according to the CEW census, there appears to be a long way to go.

Almost two-thirds of ASX200 companies (63 per cent) have no women in line roles in their executive leadership teams, according to the census, and 41 of those companies (21 per cent) have no women on their executive leadership teams – although the data was collated in August, and there appear to have been a few appointments since then.

The president of CEW and Reserve Bank of Australia board member Kathryn Fagg has worked in senior executive roles in a range of industries from resources to manufacturing to banking, and she is not surprised by the extent of the disparity found by the census. “Given the fact that I have been in executive roles for a long time, and my original career was in engineering, I was very conscious of the fact that senior executive teams tend to still be very strongly dominated by men, and that’s particularly the case in line roles,” she told The Deal. “That’s the world I come from”.

She notes, though, that many others in business seemed surprised by the census results. “There’s been so much discussion about the progress that’s actually being made”, she says. “But when you look at the numbers it’s obvious how much further we have to go”.

Fagg has often heard the argument that hirings and promotions in any large corporation must be merit-based, rather than an effort to fill some kind of gender quota. Hard statistics, though, she says, can change people’s minds. “I find when you actually talk to the people involved about what the statistics look like, it makes everyone take a step back and say, ‘it does look like there’s an issue, doesn’t it? If we are appointing on merit, how earth can we have the outcome that we see?’”

More and more, big companies are now seeing that gender equity is important for their public image, and a number are going out of their way to trumpet their success.

For her part, Fagg believes the mining, metals and petroleum multi-national BHP is “an absolute stand-out” – a company that has committed to 50-50 gender balance throughout the organisation by 2025. (According to the CEW census, there are 10 people on BHP’s executive leadership team, three of whom are women).

BHP CEO Andrew Mackenzie said earlier this year that female participation rates at BHP had traditionally been low, perhaps because BHP work is “often remote, physical and until recently, could be inflexible”. Yet that was changing, he said, and it was set to change further after an aspirational goal was set for the company last year, to achieve gender balance globally.

This year, the proportion of female leaders in BHP rose to 18 per cent, he said, adding that the most diverse sites outperform the company average on many measures, such as lower injury rates, and greater adherence to work plans and production targets.

Westpac, too, has recently clapped itself on the back for promoting gender equality. At an event in late October to announce that the bank had achieved gender parity, with women now holding 50 per cent of leadership positions – or 3000 of 6000 positions – Westpac CEO Brian Hartzer said gender equality was “a business imperative and we want our teams to reflect the communities and customers that we serve”.

He pointed out that 41.7 per cent of the bank’s general managers and group executives are women, although some have alleged that the Westpac figures deliberately classify certain roles as managers, even when the roles are not really managerial. (Westpac, according to the CEW census, has an executive leadership team of 12 people, three of them women).

For its part, Westpac says it supports and participates in the WGEA reports, but the bank has its own leadership program. As one of the biggest employers in Australia, the Westpac Group “often has more management layers and a larger management population than other Australian businesses which are also covered by WGEA”, a spokesperson responded.

Says Hartzer: “We will continue to close the gender gap at our most senior levels like our board and executive team – and will work with our customers and the business community at large to advocate for change and share experiences in building a talent pool of future female leaders”.

Bucking society’s expectations

Men have to change and work towards the idea of gender equality, says CEO Cindy Hook, and they have to carry their fair share of child-care and housework – major obstacles holding women back.

Appointed chief of Deloitte Australia in 2015, a firm with 700 partners and more than 7000 employees across the nation, Hook works in the top echelons of the private sector. Disappointed with the results of the CEW census, she believes society’s expectations of women have to move into the modern world and shed the rusted-on idea that women will always pick up the lion’s share of child-care and housework.

“Ultimately, I think one of the reasons I got to where I am is that I had a partner who shared fifty-fifty on care-giving as our children have grown up”, Hook explains.

“And I never had to make my career take a back seat. I think there’s still a stigma in society against men really playing that role, and it’s hard if you’re a woman to do the kinds of things you need to do to continue to advance in your career if you’re taking 100 per cent responsibility at home”.

Hook believes that for women to advance in the corporate world, care-giving and bread-winning must be valued equally. “I think a lot of the time bread-winning is given the priority role and men get that role, and care-giving is left to the woman. I think each family needs to work it out, on who’s going to do what, but share those responsibilities”.

When Hook became CEO of Deloitte Australia, she decided to ensure that parental leave was equally available to men and women, and she has actively encouraged men to use their parental leave.

“I think if men really get involved with care-giving of their children at an early age”, she adds, “it sets a tone for the rest of their lives”.