28/01/2010 - 00:00

Potential in pipeline failing to come on stream

28/01/2010 - 00:00

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As WA returns to boom conditions, attracting and retaining female talent may be critical.

Potential in pipeline failing to come on     stream

IF the numbers going in corresponded with the opportunity to reach the top of the tree, then women ought to be well represented at the heights of corporate Western Australia.

But they are not.

Women match men for numbers in many stages of corporate life, yet, in the high-profile corporate field of listed companies they are nearly absent.

The Australian Institute of Company Directors records show women hold less than 3 per cent of board positions for WA’s top 100 listed companies.

Similarly, when it comes to the CEOs of those listed companies it’s hard to find any women at all.

IMC Resources’ Jyn Sim Baker is a rare example.

Women simply aren’t represented beyond a few high-profile names on management teams.

Yet in other areas of corporate life women are succeeding. The women on the list accompanying this story are high-profile achievers. Many are household names and would match any similar list of men in terms of public image.

But the individual success earned through their own efforts is not matched by broader influence of their fields in WA’s corporate sphere.

Universities report that women have been graduating in equal numbers to men for years, even decades. Nearly 700 women graduated from business courses at Curtin University of Technology last year.

These figures carry on to the entry levels of many professions, yet women at management level are hard to find and are often nonexistent at CEO level, particularly in the most influential consulting areas such as law, accounting or engineering – let alone heading large listed or private companies.

University of WA Business School dean Tracey Horton said that blame could not be attributed to the education sector.

Ms Horton said even post-graduate courses were heavily populated with women, with 40 per cent of UWA’s MBA students last year being female.

She said the reasons for the lack of female representation at the upper echelons of corporate life were generally well understood; what was a mystery was why companies failed to capitalise on this talent pool.

“It won’t change until companies realise that they want that talent and are prepared to change things,” Ms Horton said.

She advocated tax deductibility for childcare expenses as a significant way to improve the situation.

There is some change occurring. In the resources sector, where women represent 18 per cent of the workforce, the Chamber of Minerals and Energy has launched the ‘Women in Resources’ competition to highlight achievers in the industry.

Alcoa is one organisation that already has a reputation for long-standing effort in this area. Until six months ago it had two senior women reporting to its Australian chief Alan Cransberg, though both have left.

Alcoa executive director people, environment and corporate affairs, Kim Horne, said the business had a long-term objective to retain talent, with the percentage of the women in the workforce cited as a key metric in all managers’ variable pay. However, Mr Horne said there had been a steep learning curve.

He said efforts to parachute top women into management positions were not overly successful and Alcoa learned that women had to come through the ranks from across all aspects of the business.

“The people who come through the pipeline are the ones who will lead the company somewhere,” Mr Horne said.

“They change the fabric of the company during their progression.”

Further afield, it was reported last week that Allen & Overy, the fourth largest of London’s major law firms, said it would allow its top partners to work part-time in an effort to encourage more women into the role.

More than 60 per cent of the graduates the firm hired for 2010 were female but only 15 per cent of its partners are women.

And in France, the government is looking at following Sweden’s lead and requiring that women make up 40 per cent of directors of certain sized companies.

However, quotas are not yet being demanded in Australia; even from groups such as the AICD and ASX that want more female-friendly boardrooms.

Women Chiefs of Enterprises International state president Jill Yelland (see Profile, page 25) thinks women have a lot of offer business but is opposed to quotas.

“One thing I don’t agree with at all is affirmative action, where you are told you must have a third or 40 per cent of a board or employees as women,” Ms Yelland said.

“I want to be there because I’m worthy of it.

“It might be the only way to get equality, but I’d rather know I was there because I was the best person for that job or board position, rather than being the token.

“So they don’t say ‘well we’d rather have him, but I suppose we have to have her’.”

She said the lack of equality in things such as salaries was wrong, but she noted that females’ success in business start-ups was better than men’s.

“I think women in business are pretty well organised and dynamic and they give everything a go, and you’ll find that they mostly do their homework before they start, especially if they set up their own business,” Ms Yelland said.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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