03/03/2011 - 00:00

Gender less of an issue in a flexible office

03/03/2011 - 00:00

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The role of women in business has been placed firmly on the agenda during the past 12 months, but is the conversation really necessary?

Gender less of an issue in a flexible office

USING the phrase ‘women in business’ elicits a range of responses these days.

Some cringe that gender is still raised as a factor when it comes to business and maintain there’s no need to couch the issue in a feminism context. Others believe barriers remain for women and that the topic needs to remain in the spotlight in order to break these barriers down.

Then there are the women (and men) who don’t join the discussion and just get on with it.

No matter how you feel about it, however, the topic of women in business is high on the national agenda, thanks in part to the Australian Institute of Company Directors and the ASX Corporate Governance Council calling on the exchange to introduce board diversity targets for top-200 listed companies.

While there are no quotas, the ‘if not, why not’ accountability rule has been applied and, since then, the number of female appointments to ASX200 boards went from 10 in 2009 to 59 last year.

In Western Australia: Diane Smith-Gander has added board roles at Transfield Services and CBH to her Wesfarmers directorship; Verve Energy chief executive Shirley In’t Veld was named director of Asciano; Gina Rinehart became a director of Ten Network Holdings; and Fiona Harris was appointed to Aurora Oil & Gas and Sundance Resources.

Other notable female executives in the west include: Water Corporation chief executive Sue Murphy; Woodside executive vice-president, health, safety and security Eve Howell; Shell chairwoman Ann Pickard; and Jenny Seabrook, who is on the boards of Bankwest and Iluka.

When it comes to discussing issues such as flexibility and outcomes-based working arrangements – and whether women can effectively manage children and a career – the question remains, should we even still be talking about this?

According to AICD WA state manager Suzanne Ardagh, the answer is yes.

“There are some very deeply embedded cultural stereotypes that still exist which are, ‘the men are the leaders and the women follow’; that is not right. I think that explains why we don’t have the representation of women on boards,” Ms Ardagh said.

From operational to executive level staff, she said the conversation was still required in order to change those structures and encourage people with families into the workforce.

“If we want full engagement of the community in the workplace then we have got to make it easy for men and women, families to do that,” Ms Ardagh said.

At a recent WA Business News round table discussion with some of Perth’s entrepreneurs and executives, Committee for Perth chief executive Marion Fulker anecdotally referred to those barriers.

“There do seem to be some barriers in being an employee in a large corporate. One of the things that has been said to me is, ‘those guys on the terrace absolutely value what you do, but they are never going to put you in a CEO position in a large corporate because you are not managing a big balance sheet,” Ms Fulker said.

So how can that be changed? According to the women attending the forum, creating workforce inclusion by offering flexibility regardless of gender is key.

All of the women attending the luncheon noted they had flexibility in their positions and that was vital to managing their lives.

“We know that word flexibility, but how does it unpack and what does that really mean in terms of women being able to continue their careers, move into CEO positions but still keep the other things in their life that they want to do, which are very important?” Challenger Institute of Technology chief executive Liz Harris asked the forum.

Marvic Packaging executive director and ex-RAC executive Kellie Benda summarised what all the women believed is key to flexibility – having outcomes-based work arrangements.

“My two things are flexibility and outcomes. I don’t really mind where you are, and how you do it, as long as you are delivering,” Ms Benda said.

Alison Morley is the chief executive of junior manganese explorer Brumby Resources, and is chair of the national Women in Mining networking group.

In her position at Brumby she has arguably the most flexible arrangements of all those at the forum – she is in the top position at the company and works three days a week.

“One of my great passions is flexible and part-time arrangements and how they can work for people. What I don’t want to get into is just having a job; I want a career but work part time, that is key,” she said.

Ms Morley believes flexible work arrangements aren’t just beneficial for the individual but also for organisations that are feeling the pinch of the tightening employment market.

By creating part-time positions and job-sharing arrangements and providing outcomes-based processes, Ms Morley said companies would increase the size of their talent pool.

“We can ride this wave and make part-time and flexible work more attractive to companies. The skills shortage will enable us to push that agenda,” she said.

It is fair to assume that bargaining for part time and flexible work arrangements is easier for those who are well established in their careers and who have desirable skills and experience – a sentiment supported by Ms Benda.

She said that, in her executive role at RAC, when she started her family and wanted the flexibility to start later and work from home, the option was there.

“I had children late, I was very senior and so my leverage to get what I wanted was far greater than an accounts clerk who can be replaced easily,” Ms Benda said.

Global Diagnostic chief executive Angela Whittington said her hours had always been flexible and based on outcomes, something she helped to ensure for her staff as well.

“We all have flexibility, we all have different hours,” Ms Whittington told the forum.

‘‘I never get to work before 10.

‘‘I just work whatever hours I need to. It is a very important value.”

According to Ms Benda, the balance of traditional workplace structures needs to change, not just for women but for men as well.

Energy Resourcing group general manager Nicole Kirwan-Ward said the current generation of executives needed to implement cultural change for men and women.

“I think we have a certain responsibility when we hit seniority that we should push flexibility down to all levels. If we have the opportunity to implement flexibility within our own workforce, then we should make a difference,” she said.

“If we have the opportunity to do it, we should be doing it, not just saying we’re going to.”

Again the benefits aren’t limited only to the individual enjoying flexible arrangements; Ms Kirwan-Ward said it would incite staff loyalty and retention.

“If you ask a lot of our people what they want it’s not extra dollars, it’s time. Pushing flexibility down through the ranks inspires a lot of loyalty to the organisation – it’s an amazing thing if you have the means and funds to support it,” she said.

Perhaps ironically, Ms Benda wondered whether it would take the men within an organisation to initiate flexible arrangements.

“I have always wondered whether until men actually needed to have flexibility in the workplace, it won’t happen. If you take that it is mainly men in the workforce in senior positions, it will take something on the bottom line to drive the need for flexibility,’’ she said.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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