08/07/2010 - 00:00

Closing the gender gap at executive level

08/07/2010 - 00:00

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Most in business acknowledge the need for more women on boards and in senior management.

WITH the ASX pushing harder to see more women as directors and have listed companies report on the female composition, not just of their boards but also in senior management and the whole workforce, I thought it was opportune to revisit something that occurred to me a couple of months ago.

It highlights the contradictions in this subject.

I caught up with a very senior chairman and the subject got around to women on boards.

This chairman is someone I would regard as progressive, with significant experience in public companies, both industrial and resources.

He said he had sought a qualified female candidate for the board of a big company and had simply been unable to find one. In his view the pool was small and the opportunity to get the right fit in terms of culture, experience and skills was not there.

Just a week or so later, I attended an Australian Institute of Company Directors lunch at which Woodside CEO Don Voelte spoke about gender diversity.

It was a good speech that moved beyond rattling off statistics and highlighted his company’s own policies. Specifically discussing board appointments, I recall Mr Voelte stated that he didn’t believe the excuse that there weren’t enough women with the appropriate background.

I find this a conundrum. A senior chairman says they aren’t available, a senior executive says they are.

There was more food for thought, though.

To warm the audience up Mr Voelte said his mum, a shareholder, had asked why there were not more women on the Woodside board.

“She said she was disappointed in me,” Mr Voelte said.

Now it may be the case that CEOs aren’t really supposed to choose their own board members but the Woodside chief also spoke at length about his workforce. He said there was a strong business case for diversity and admitted his company could do a lot better.

And that is from a business leader who believes he has a strategy that is putting runs on the board.

Woodside’s workforce is 35 per cent female but Mr Voelte said the company was falling down in converting this to senior managerial roles.

Only 15 per cent of his direct reports were women, a statistic that is probably high for the resources sector even though, at this seniority, it moves significantly with the comings and goings of individuals.

Mr Voelte said the company needed to create a climate that attracted and retained women at all levels of the organisation, that included ensuring a return to work (from maternity leave) was as smooth as possible and as fulfilling as when they left.

He even read out an email from a senior female executive of his company discussing the issue and highlighting how well Woodside was doing.

The cynic in me thought it was just a big ad for Woodside, which, like every other resources company, has to pitch itself as the perfect employer these days to get the talent it wants.

After all, the audience was largely comprised of professional females from a range of sectors. They, or their networks, are now big targets as the next potential skills shortage rears its ugly head.

And don’t forget, Mr Voelte was pitched as the tough American who came here to whip Woodside into shape. Who could forget those emails that became public chastising one of his senior managers on an overseas posting?

I was fortunate, therefore, to have the opportunity just a day later to be at a corporate function and find myself chatting with a female who works within Mr Voelte’s inner circle.

She was adamant that he walked the walk as much as he talked the talk, having implemented female-friendly policies that would have seemed more likely under the previous regime at Woodside.

Like many strategies created by CEOs, this one may take longer than the term of its creator, and will need to survive his successor, before the rest of us clearly see the results.

Choices abound

SPEAKING of successful women, a few months back I had the pleasure of judging our ninth 40under40 Awards, which was won by Bannister Downs Dairy Company managing director Suzanne Daubney.

Ms Daubney was the third woman to take out the First Amongst Equals title. In fact, women have won three of the past four years, with Atlas Iron chief David Flanagan spoiling the party.

I was struck by this success because I recalled in the early days of the 40under40 we wondered if a woman would ever win. It was not just the numbers or the track records, either.

I remember in the early part of the judging process seeing an application from someone I thought was a potential winner.

Her experience was significant and her potential was obvious. She had done enough and risen high enough in relatively short time for me to know that she could go further if she tried – she certainly had years up her sleeve to do so. It just seemed so obvious.

I took the opportunity at the last part of the judging, a series of one-on-one interviews, to ask the big question as I saw it.

“What do you plan to do next with your career?”

The answer I expected was that she planned to become managing director or go and start her own business.

Instead the reply was very different.

The entrant said she was planning to step away from executive life and become a director.

I was, I have to say, very disappointed. The opportunity to have a female winner that year had evaporated for me – because that wasn’t really what 40under40 was all about.

Now don’t get me wrong, this candidate would have made a great director, but that just didn’t seem appropriate when there was so much left to both do and learn.

I wondered at the time if I had stumbled across something telling? Was this very capable woman jumping from the middle of her career to the end of it for some reason? Had she sensed the difficulties in penetrating further at executive level?

I never had those questions answered by her.

Thankfully our subsequent female winners have made it somewhat redundant.

• mark.pownall@wabusinessnews.com.au.

 

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