Is the old boys’ club dying?

by 06 Mar 2007

Talented women are leaving companies due to a range of factors, a number of which can be put down to the influence of old boys clubs. Craig Donaldson looks at this trend and examines how to deal with them

The old boys’ club conjures up certain images in one’s mind. A stereotypical one might be a cosy clique of well-dressed greying men sitting round a small mahogany table, puffing away on expensive cigars and swirling their fine brandy. In reality, old boys’ clubs still exist within Australian corporate life, however, they are a lot more subtle and their level of influence has waned significantly in recent times.

Amidst a number of converging and unstoppable economic, demographic and other forces, such clubs are no longer relevant or attractive to many young males, who could otherwise be potential suitors for such clubs.

Fiona Krautil, head of diversity for ANZ, says there are less old boys’ clubs than there used to be. “If I look back 10 years ago, the boys’ club was really for any jobs in management. It was pretty hard for women to get them. The boys’ club is now at a more senior level, so we’re talking about executive appointments now and boards. We haven’t been able to crack boards, with a few exceptions,” she says.

While the influence of such clubs has dwindled, there are still resistant pockets in other areas of business. Typically, Krautil says these pockets exist where there aren’t enough women in the critical mass to shift the male-centric culture. “So there are still pockets and usually they’re in the very high-paid parts of organisations, where women have found it very hard to get appointed in there.”

Christine Nixon, chief commissioner of Victoria Police, says the dominance of the old boys’ club is being challenged by increasing numbers of women entering the workforce, either in true professions or working part-time. “Certainly in terms of the numbers of women in the first part – within policing we are slowly seeing that number of women increasing in senior management. I think in many other businesses, and perhaps less so in government, you are certainly seeing a critical mass of women. For all of us it has probably taken much longer than any really imagined it,” she says.

Doug Jukes, national chairman of KPMG, says things have changed significantly over the past 15 years. “I look at the CEO of today compared to the CEO yesterday – there’s a big difference when it comes to the people agenda. CEOs 15 years ago probably didn’t even think about the people agenda. That was something for HR,” he says.

“Now, it’s so important for virtually every business that it’s got to be a huge part of the CEO’s skill set. This flows on to culture, values and walking the talk around diversity.” In years gone by, Jukes says responsive programs for women in the workplace would have been seen as a ‘nice to have’, but now such programs are essential if companies are to be taken seriously when it comes to talent and competition.

Karen Faehndrich, vice-president of strategic accounts for DBM, says the old boys’ club is not as strong as it used to be, but in some instances it has gone underground. “So it’s a little more covert. It has the same pull at the very top end of the business when you talk about boards. As you start to move down the level, the effectiveness and the power of the old boys’network isn’t as strong,” she says.

Dealing with the clubs

Where they still exist, there are a number of steps women can take to help deal with old boys’ clubs. Rather than taking a sledgehammer approach, such steps are more akin to taking a subtle wedge and gradually making more inroads.

“In a boys’ club, don’t bother with the person who’s still sexist and thinks women should be at home. Forget about them. I believe those whose doors are closed to women are not going survive in the corporate world over the next couple of years,” says Krautil.

“But there will be a few whose door will be open, particularly those who have daughters, who truly believe women have talent and will support women. There will be another group whose door is partly open, who haven’t quite got it but are certainly open to learning and supporting.”

Seeking out a sponsor – someone who can provide advice and coaching – from someone who sits in the framework of a boys’ club can be invaluable, according to Faehndrich. “A lot of women fail to seek out a sponsor – someone who looks out for you at the table, whether it be the boardroom table or the executive table.”

Sponsors can open doors at a level that can provide entrée to women for more senior and critical roles and projects. “It happens almost automatically for men. They just sponsor each other. A woman will need to actually seek it out,” she says. “So women need to be a little bit more tenacious and a little more proactive around doing that. The old boys’ network tends not to reach out.”

Politics is an important part of the equation, she adds. A lot of women opt out of organisational politics, where male culture often dictates how to behave, communicate or entertain. As such, women need to think about their communication style and realise that it can be a case of Mars and Venus.

“Women particularly approach things very differently to men,” says Faehndrich. “There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and it’s not so much about one being right and one being wrong. It’s just that it’s very different.

“So women actually need to be smarter about the way they communicate. While that seems such an obvious thing, it’s surprising how many women haven’t yet gained the skills, the confidence or the understanding of that being as necessary as it is,” she says.

Breaking the mould

Another key lies in the process of recruitment and executive appointments. Similar to Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results), many boards and executive teams expect better different results by hiring in the same mould.

“It’s about systems – how you get decent and fair systems into place so that the way people are chosen for positions is done with some legitimacy. I think that’s an important part,” Nixon says.

“Other challenges are the fact that many people who sit on panels and make choices are looking for people who look like them. They are looking for males of a certain age. I think broader selection panels, broader criteria that show that women who have a set of different skills to men are just as capable in doing the job. You’ve got to look at attitudes, and I guess that’s what we’ve been working on for the last 30 years.”

This is a question of overcoming structural barriers first, she says, which allows for a change in culture and promotes a mindset that women can bring to businesses and government departments great skills that are easily equitable to those of any men.

Twenty years ago, professional services firms were particular about who they employed and what they would look like, according to KPMG’s Jukes. “I think it’s the same with boards. Now, boards are less likely to recruit someone just because they come from the same club. Ten to 15 years ago, they tended to use professional headhunters; they tended to go for the talent they wanted, people with certain appearances, in certain industries. So yes, I’m sure there are boys’clubs around, but I think there’s been a wave of change,” he says.

This comes down to talent, according to Jukes. Boards want diversity of talent and international experience, and “not just someone who knows Fred and thinks that he’s a good bloke”, he says.

Krautil acknowledges that appointments are crucial as one of the first steps in the change process. “It’s about who you appoint. Do I appoint someone who will take the same risks? Or do I see women as no more risky than men, if women have the skills and the ability? It’s about the culture they create through this,” she says.

Tracking change

As such, change has to come from the top – driven by the board, with the CEO accountable for driving change and then creating an environment and putting in place measurable systems to support this. HR is also involved in tracking change and helping the process, Krautil says.

“If you’re going to do one thing, put targets in place for managers. Targets are really key. We set targets for everything else in the business, and you see shifts where managers are held accountable. In ANZ we set targets for our managers. We encourage them to look at the talent pool and find the women. There has to be a woman on the shortlist, and this has been very successful. In our experience, when you get a female on the list it’s not a tokenistic person. There’s a high success rate with that individual.”

It’s important for women to get line management experience with P&L responsibilities, Jukes says, and KPMG has set targets around this. “Often, women in companies will do very well in HR and marketing and these sort of roles, but they haven’t got a mainline P&L responsibility. But that’s changing,” he says.

“We want 25 per cent of our partners to be female by 2010 and certainly in Australia, we are very much on the way to being there. I think we will probably make that target. This stood at about 8 per cent around seven years ago.”

The future

The old boys’ club has been around for a long time, and it is going to take some time yet before such networks really break down. Flexibility in work is critical to this. “It’s about providing flexible work environments, so that women who have children –strangely enough they do have children – are able to be part of everyday life within organisations. We need to allow women to be able to fulfil those obligations and have men help them through that,” says Nixon.

Krautil agrees. “If we can crack flexibility, that will free up the pipeline of talent for women. Women in senior management will be able to stay in those P&L jobs that they need in order to get to GM roles and then to CEO roles and then to boards,” she says.

“I think it’s going to take another ten years. If you look backwards it’s bleak. If you look forwards and optimistically, I think there are a number of good women lining up, but if we don’t intervene it will take 100 years. Time will not fix this. There are positive signs, but I wouldn’t hold my breath that we’re going to fix it all tomorrow.”

Christine Nixon and other female executives will be speaking at the Executive Women’s Leadership Symposium, held across Australia from April through to May. For more information, visit www.executivewomen.com.au.

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