31/03/2014 - 15:13

Exceptions that prove the gender rule

31/03/2014 - 15:13

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Gender is a perennial issue because progress comes in fits and starts.

Exceptions that prove the gender rule
PLAYER: Janet Holmes a Court says there is still a long road ahead if gender equality in the workplace is to be achieved. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Gender is a perennial issue because progress comes in fits and starts. 

The story behind the new leadership team at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA was one of those ‘red flag’ issues for those of us who have been in the news business for a while – making it a worthy cover feature this week.

In early February, about a month out from the day that Deidre Willmott was set to take up the role as head of CCI, it dawned on me that this was a significant move in terms of the discussion around gender and leadership.

Ms Willmott’s appointment closely followed the ascension of Tracey Horton to role of president at the peak business lobby group.

These are important roles in the business community and have been filled by some exceptional people, as the table on the accompanying feature article attests.

It seems obvious to me that both women, whose careers I have followed for many years, are eminently suited the tasks they have taken on. The fact they are female would be irrelevant except that it is so unusual, especially in this resources town where many in the business space come from male-dominated mining and related industries.

Ms Horton is quick to mention that there is some action in the area outside of Western Australia. Kate Carnell, for instance, has been appointed CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Added to that, more recent speculation has suggested that Telstra chair Catherine Livingstone is to be named president of the Business Council of Australia, joining existing chief executive Jennifer Westacott at the helm of that important institution – another female duo at the head of an important business lobby group.

This is good news. It is not just about gender, it is about productivity. In my view, when women get to use their talents to the fullest degree, society benefits because the capacity of its people is being better utilised. More people are fulfilled in what they do.

Good policy enables that.

When women such as Ms Willmott and Ms Horton can achieve so much, while raising families and having successful career-oriented husbands, we can be confident that our society is improving its ability to get the best out of everyone. It is not a complete story, but it is getting better.

Nevertheless, those great examples merely highlight how few leading women we have in this state.

Our 2014 Book of Lists shows that Ms Horton was the only female president of the top 20 associations in WA. Of those top 20, only two had women as their most senior executive – Engineers Australia at number 16 and the Pastoralists & Graziers Association WA at number 19.

Interestingly, both these fields are perceived as male-dominated, especially the engineering sector.

The Book of Lists, a Business News product since 1996 which is now incorporated into our BNIQ online search engine for subscribers, is a rich place to source such data, as I discovered at a recent Property Council of Australia lunch where Janet Holmes a Court spoke on the imbalance gender and sourced considerable data on the failings of the property and construction sector from the Book of Lists.

While Mrs Holmes a Court, who used to own John Holland and still has a role on its advisory board, relied on her no doubt well-thumbed 2012 edition, the numbers were stark and little had changed when we published our 2014 lists in hard copy at the start of the year.

Ranked at 19, Woodhead was the only one of the top 20 architecture firms to be run by a woman – Jacqui Preshaw. In construction, only one of the top 12 we published was female and that was Mirvac Group, which didn’t have a local WA leader at that stage, so we listed its national CEO Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz (Mirvac is now on our fledgling built-form property developers list – without a female head in WA).

The list goes on. There are no women heading the top 15 contractors and just two WA heads of the top 42 engineering firms – Elizabeth Lakey at JP Kenny, ranked 15th, and Judith Uren at BG&E, ranked 33rd.

In residential building’s top 22 only Amano Homes, at number 20, was run by a woman, Paula West.

Of the top 20 town and regional planners, three had practices headed by women: Cardno in 8th, run by Denise Morgan; GHD (14th) run by Anna Kelderman; and Hocking Heritage Studio (20th), with Gemma Smith.

None of the leading 20 land developers had a woman in the top job. It was a similar for the top 10 commercial real estate agents, while only one of the top 20 residential real estate firms had a female leader, Century 21 Australia state manager Katie Faiello.

I am cautious about the symbolism here but one area that was better populated by female leaders was the shopping centre sector, with seven of the 19 top-listed centres at the start of 2014 managed by women (see table above).

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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