The ascent of woman: challenge or choice?

by 17 Mar 2009

Sarah O’Carroll leads a roundtable of high-level female executives to examine one of the most pressing questions of our time: why are there so few women at the top of business in Australia?

The question as to why more women haven’t stormed the barricades of the high-earning high- level corporate positions remains an issue of con tention. Some say it’s due to choice – that many women choose not to pursue their career when they reach a certain point in their life. Others say it’s because of discrimination and that too many barriers are in places to allow women to make a viable choice at all.

HR Leader brought together a group of top business women to discuss the reasons behind the low levels of women in leadership positions – and possible solutions to that continuing gender imbalance.

The roundtable discussion was hosted by Accenture in the lead-up to International Women’s Day. It addressed some of the biggest barriers facing corporate women and ways to overcome them.

Although many people argue that women have the same opportunities and prospects as men in western society, the fact remains that only 2 per cent of ASX200 CEOs are women. Only 10 per cent of executive managers are women (a figure which has declined since 2004). And even though 50 per cent of university graduates entering the workforce are women, this percentage drops significantly when gen der equity at senior level is measured.

It has been argued that women are not reaching top positions in the same proportions as men because of their own personal choices. But sex discrimination commis sioner Liz Broderick argues that it’s not because of choice. She describes it as “adaptive preferences” and says that the choices women make are often because they have no other option.

Broderick says that when women leave the workforce to have children, the barriers and obstacles they face when they return as mothers make it too difficult to continue in the corporate world and they choose to leave.

Many companies are introducing strategies to help break down these barriers for women. Innovative flexi bility programs, childcare systems and job redesigns have taken part on a large scale over the past decade. But, according to the Australian Census of Women in Leader ship survey, these strategies aren’t bringing about higher levels of women at executive level. In fact, the numbers have decreased since 2004. So what is the solution?

Are quotas the answer?

When Katie Lahey, CEO of the Business Council of Aus tralia, said in November that it might be time to intro duce a debate around quotas, many people snubbed the idea as not feasible and unrealistic. Lacey pointed out that Australia has not yet had a serious discussion around the topic, unlike the US and Europe, and that it might very well be the missing piece of the jigsaw.

When the topic of quotas was brought to the round table, the CEO of News Magazines, Sandra Hook, said that before we even considered quotas she would have to ask what the benefit of making half an organisation’s board members female would be.

“The first question that must be asked is ‘Why should I have fifty per cent of my board members women and how is it going to benefit the company commercially?’ ”

Dr Hannah Piterman, author of The Leadership Chal lenge, contends that it is essential for companies to pres ent the business case around quotas. Piterman says that it is a foolish company that doesn’t try to strip down the barriers facing women.

“In Norway when they were introducing quotas the way they phrased it was: ‘This is business’,” says Piter man. “They went through the Corporations Act and rather than taking the approach of ‘It’s not fair’ and ‘It’s an equity issue’, they approached it from a business perspective.”

Piterman believes that there is a strong business case for introducing quotas because there are clear barriers in place preventing women from progressing. She says that it is to a company’s detriment not having women – and their distinct abilities such as forward thinking and intuition – in senior positions. She also says that it is at times like this – namely in the current economic climate – that companies really need to rethink their approaches.

“We can’t afford to have discriminatory approaches that preclude excellence from coming to the top,” she says. “It can’t just be a case that we need to have women up there, it has to be because we are not tapping into an excel lent pool.”

Anita Caulfield, director of Emberin, said that educa tion around the inherent merits of women leaders needs to take place.

“Many organisations don’t understand the business case around women, per se. They don’t know their own facts or figures – what the cost is when they lose women,” she says.

“They must determine whether a lack of diversity is impacting their business solutions. So an education about that is needed first and foremost. Then each company can take their individual case along with external, or even global, data.”

However one of the problems is, according to Caulfield, that there is very little data and research in Australia around exactly how profitable it is to organisations to have women in senior positions. This is something, the group agreed, that really needed to be looked at and to be addressed by detailed research.

It was agreed among the attendees that, at the end of the day, quotas are ultimately an undesirable solution. While they may achieve some short-term desired effect, attendees argued, they may have long-term negative impacts.

Lynne Barry, HR director of Accenture, says that quo tas are often associated with the decline of meritocracy and GE Money’s Teresa Grove, head of workplace rela tions, HR compliance & corporate citizenship, says that it could be detrimental to the esteem of women. She says that what would be set out to be a positive process could have debilitating effects. One example, she said, would be women feeling they had been promoted because numbers must be filled and not because of their individual merit.

An alternative to quotas

Sue Gilchrist, Partner at Freehills, offers an alternative. She said that, arguably, a better idea would be to introduce goals into senior management KPIs. While it wouldn’t be as overt as blatant quotas, it would incentivise managers to bring a certain number of women to their team.

“Perhaps a better approach would be if the CEO has KPIs around how many women are on the board,” says Gilchrist. “Although it’s not published to everyone, it might lead to creating a culture where that is going to happen. I would go more for that approach than an absolute public quota.”

Gilchrist used as an example the successful Equitable Briefing Policy which many law firms have signed up to. It states that signatories must brief a certain per cent of female barristers, meaning that they will actively consider using a female barrister. “This has become quite accepted and public,” she says. “It is also monitored.”

But while the suggestion of setting goals and having targets in KPIs will be an incentive, whether it will be enough to change things is still in doubt.

The group agreed that to get the ball rolling, some form of Government incentive payment would also be a huge ben efit. Money, said one participant, speaks to every company.

Accenture’s Lynne Barry proffers the training levy exam ple as a successful government intervention. She says that when the Government moved to address the skills short age by introducing a training levy on all companies, it saw a marked increase in training and development, increased training services and, essentially, a more skilled workforce.

“Everybody, no matter what size company, had to invest in some kind of training,” she says. “The scheme achieved its desirable outcome.”

The group felt that if the Government moved to address the gender imbalance issue in the same way, it would pro vide a huge incentive for companies to act.

Time for a work redesign?

A letter to the editor of HR Leader's sister publication Lawyers Weekly said: "Rather than bemoaning the potential negative career consequences of their personal decisions, women should be encouraged to question whether they really can 'have it all' (generally, men can't and don't try to) and to celebrate the fact that they have open to them a far wider range of life choices than are available to most of their male colleagues."

When this idea was presented to the leading women of our roundtable the response was unanimous - yes, they did want it all. And while these women had achieved it, there were many women, they pointed out, who hadn't because of corporate barriers to juggling family and work.

Many companies have introduced flexibility into their workplaces but it still hasn't achieved the desired outcome - to give working parents the choice to continue their career and raise children.

When the roundtable participants were asked what could have helped throughout the course of their career the resounding answer was more affordable and convenient access to childcare and flexibility.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Liz Broderick contended that having effective flexible work practices also means confronting significant attitudinal barriers - such as deeply held prejudices about men and women's roles in both the family and paid work. Only when these were addressed, she said, would it become more possible for women to progress.

She believes that the reason we haven't seen effective flexible working solutions is because that requires job redesign. "Job redesign is at the heart of true flexible work practice that delivers for both the business and the individual."

Broderick said she believed that workers have been handed this unalterable construct known as "work" and we feel powerless to change it.

This feeling was echoed at the roundtable: "If you look at the way we educate our children, we send them to a classroom from 9am until 3pm," says News Magazine's CEO, Sandra Hook. "We've been doing that for the past 100 years, but it's not necessarily the right way.

"We haven't actually turned flexibility on its head and said 'OK, let's look at the job that has to be done and not so much the job description.' It might be time to take a really big-picture approach and actually redesign the way we work overall."

She said that would mean actually throwing out the job description and just looking at the outcomes of the job. Progressive companies, attendees argued, would tap into the fact that a rigid 9 to 5 was not the best way for many to work.