Opinion: Taking practical steps to achieving gender parity within Australian companies

by Contributor09 May 2017
There is still some way to go before gender parity is reached, writes Michael Horton 

Few people would disagree that there needs to be more women in senior management roles within Australian organisations. What's less clear, however, is how this can be achieved.

While there has been some progress in recent years, there is still much work to be done. According to research by the Institute of Company Directors, women account for just 25% of board positions within ASX 200 listed companies. While there is a goal to increase this to 30% by the end of 2018, there is clearly still a long way to go before gender parity is reached.

An entrenched gap
The dominance of men in senior management positions has been a feature of the Australian business landscape for decades. Boardroom tables are filled by suited males, as are the vast majority of top management roles.

Much of this situation can be attributed to organisational cultures. Having men at the top has been the case for so long, it's become the norm. Unless purposeful steps are taken, the current status quo is unlikely to change any time soon. According to a recent survey:*

•    76% of Australian CIOs recognise the need to encourage more women into their IT departments.
•    27% of Australian CIOs have no women in IT management
•    21% of CIOs have no women in their technical and development teams.

In the technology industry, the situation is made more concerning by the falling number of women entering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) studies. The reasons for this trend are somewhat unclear, however the result is that there are fewer women graduating and accepting jobs within the sector. This, in turn, is resulting in fewer climbing the corporate ranks and accepting senior management roles.

There is clearly no silver bullet to overcome these challenges, but that doesn't mean there's nothing that can be done. Taking thoughtful, positive steps now will pay dividends in the future.

Mentoring program  
As one the fastest growing 21st century technology companies, HCL Technologies has been globally committed to gender diversity and inclusion, and has been contributing to increasing the participation of women leaders within the IT and Technology sectors.  In an effort to assist in bridging the senior management gender gap in Australia, HCL Technologies has been a proud supporter of the Women Lead Australia program. HCL Technologies conceptualized and implemented this first of its kind initiative in corporate Australia history. The programme saw participation from 30 senior leaders from 18 Top Australian organisations.

Now in its second year of operation, the program provides one-on-one mentoring support for business women across a variety of different industry sectors.

Typically, women leadership/mentoring programs being run by technology services companies in Australia are directed towards internal employees and not the larger corporate community as a whole. However, over the course of 13 weeks, the Women Lead Australia program allows for each mentee to meet regularly with a specially selected mentor. Pulled from senior management in some of Australia's largest companies, the mentors bring with them a wealth of experience and knowledge to be shared. The program concludes with a graduation dinner to acknowledge the progress made by mentees and celebrate their future ongoing success.

To be accepted into the program, mentees must already be enjoying a successful career in their chosen area. They need to be able to identify where their skills need to be enhanced to give them the best possible chance of rising up the corporate ladder.

Mentors must be prepared to allocate a certain amount of time to the program, typically approximate 12 hours of a commitment spread over 13 weeks. However, there are no restrictions on any associations these pairs may wish to have from a mentoring perspective even after the program. 

Long-term benefits
The program is not designed to be a one-off event after which mentees simply return to their day-to-day roles and continue as normal. Each is encouraged to formulate a plan by which they can position themselves for future advancement.

During the mentoring sessions, any roadblocks that are being experienced can be examined and strategies formulated for them to be overcome. Mentors are able to draw on past experiences and offer practical examples of steps that have worked - and any that may have not.

Topics for discussion can include how to overcome entrenched company cultures and how to deal with boards that are less open minded when it comes to issues such as overcoming gender imbalances. Other discussions may cover steps to attaining an effective work/life balance and what some areas for future professional development might be.

The program was intentionally not designed to be prescriptive and so force all mentees to follow a similar path. Rather, all are encouraged to focus on the areas of most use to them and formulate a unique personal plan to match their circumstances.

Participants also benefit from the fact that their mentor may well have come from an organisation and industry sector very different to their own. Getting a fresh perspective from someone outside your usual circle of influence can spark new ideas and plans.

Previous mentees have reported it can be a surprise to find out how many issues they face within their area are actually shared across the wider business landscape. This can help in the process of strategy development and identifying the next steps to take. 

The program mentors also report receiving significant benefits from their involvement. Being able to give back by offering support and guidance to ambitious young women can deliver a sense of satisfaction that spills over into other parts of their professional lives. Many continue their mentoring relationships once the official program has concluded, adding further value to the process.

Narrowing the gap
While it's not complete answer to narrowing the gender divide with Australian companies, programs such as Women Lead Australia can provide worthwhile advice and support that can make a significant difference for participants.  They also help create a unique women’s leadership development platform for Australia, but also build a model for mentoring which can be replicated globally.

As greater numbers of women attain senior management and board-level roles, they in turn will be able to help to nurture the next generation. Taking practical steps like these now will ensure the gender gap becomes a piece of history in the not-too-distant future.

•    Source: Harvey Nash Survey Australia & CEDA survey.

About the author
Michael Horton is Senior Vice President and Country Head – ANZ Region, HCL Technologies