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Gender equality in the workplace: The 8 most powerful actions to drive change


DATE: 18 April, 2017

Lessons from my battle with gender diversity

They say you don’t need to go through the lesson to get the learning. That’s why I’m sharing here a powerful lesson I learnt about gender diversity. It can save you years of failed effort, and quickly move your organisation towards gender, and then other, workplace and equality diversity. And this all makes brilliant business sense.

The research shows that genuinely diversified workplaces perform much, much better.

It starts with a story about me. I am not overly proud of me in this story. But in the end I think I did okay. Agree? Here goes.

My reaction to the avalanche of media coverage a couple of years ago on gender diversity was one of resentment, fear and a touch of outrage.

As a leader of a business with 4,000 employees, mainly female, and with most leadership roles filled by men, I knew I had an issue. The problem was me. I knew I had to get my head around what was bothering me most about the gender diversity agenda. So, I took action.

I called the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, explained my biases and barriers, and asked for help. To its credit, it did just that, sending two senior executives to meet me for a solid three hours of passionate debate. I was ready for a fight. I was pissed off before we began. But the wind got taken right out of my sails.

Here are the highlights of that discussion:

Me: I don’t get it (snarl grrrrr). Someone who wants to work three days a week usually is rigorous in ensuring they only work three days a week, in the agreed time slots. But they want to get paid 60% of the full time person. The full time person is working 130% of a week, late nights and weekends often. That’s not fair.

The Agency: We agree. We believe in equal pay for equal value.

Me: Oh. Ok. That makes sense. But how about this? I was a joint leader of a business once when my business partner had a baby at the same time my wife had a baby. But the expectation was that she had priority to go home to see her baby at the end of the day. I had to stay and handle the urgent issues. I missed out on my baby. Yet we were equal partners. If I had complained, I would have been seen as a misogynist. That’s just not fair.

The Agency: We agree. That’s just not fair. We’re sorry that happened to you.

Me: Oh. You are? Good then. Now here’s a tough one. I hate the idea of quotas, that a certain percentage of senior roles MUST be filled by women by a certain timeframe. How can that be fair? These roles are currently filled. Do we take the men outside and shoot them? What about the hard working men who have done everything to set themselves up for roles and are the right candidates for the next opening? Should they be shot too?

The Agency: We don’t support quotas. We do support goals — something to aim at and to try to achieve. But we recognise that there is a process and timeframe that needs to evolve, though actions can be taken to help accelerate women into roles when they become available.

Me: Oh. Ok then. Here’s a hum-dinger. How can roles be offered part time if they are client facing and need consistent client engagement? It’s impossible!

The Agency: There are ways. Many client organisations will agree to part time or job sharing from an agency as it fits with that corporate’s gender diversity policy. Plus the major legal firms are very good at this. If they can do it, so can you. And so it went on. Every angle I had, The Agency had a calm, measured, logical and proven response. So I changed tact. I decided I wanted to lead the best ever diversity effort in our industry. My CEO agreed. So we approached Gordon Cairns, now chairman of Woolworths and a leader of the Male Champions of Change, for counsel on our plans.

8 step action plan

The key counsel he gave us contributed to this action plan:

  1. Set targets: ours was 50/50 men and women in our leadership roles by 2020.
  2. Set a task-force headed by the CEO to spearhead the effort.
  3. Immediately review compensation equality: are women being paid the same as men for the same roles? If not, take action quickly and relevantly to address that.
  4. Instigate recruitment bias training: make sure key leaders who do the hiring understand their biases and have tools to address them.
  5. Flexibility: this is critically important to enabling talented women particularly to re-enter the workforce after maternity leave. Make your working environment as flexible as possible.
  6. Sponsor women into key roles: make sure you have senior leaders matched with high potential emerging female leaders so they can be helped and ‘pushed’ into roles when they become available. I did not like this one. “That’s not fair,” I exclaimed. “Why?” asked Gordon,  “Men have been pushing men into roles for decades. Now do it for the women.” The point was made to me that men are promoted on potential. Women are promoted on proven track record. So women have to work much harder to get that next role. Not fair.
  7. Men have to lead the change: The Male Champions of Change was formed on the premise that if we really want gender equality, it will happen faster if men talk to men about it and make commitments to drive change. As a generalisation, men are the bulk of the power in corporate Australia today. So unless men are talking to men and taking action, not much will happen.
  8. Provide ‘fast track’ skills training for women leaders: create a program where emerging female leaders can get intense training to give them those extra skills they need to cope with a fast-tracked leadership position.

Gender diversity is a key challenge and social issue of our time. It is within OUR power to do something about it — and quickly.

I was a genuine sceptic two years ago. I had my experiences and biases that kept me narrow and trapped. But with the help of experts, who gave me the time and patience, I was converted. And by following these 8 steps in your business, whether a staff of 10 or 100, you too can make a difference in making sure fairness is the order of the day.

Give it a go! You’ll make big progress fast, and your business