What’s stopping women?
Alison Watkins and other top corporate women give their tips.
Australia has people such as Gail Kelly and Alison Watkins as chief executives of companies listed on the Australian Securities Exchange. Do we have a problem in getting women into the top corporate ranks? If so, how bad is it?
Alison Watkins: Things are changing. I am an optimist. I think about my daughter, her mindset and the options she has, and I feel very positive. But the change we’ve seen so far is largely cosmetic. There are more women on larger company boards and more women who are key management personnel (KMP) but if you drill down into the roles those women hold, more often or not, senior functional roles. We definitely need more women holding line-management roles.
Nicola Wakefield Evans: I’m more pessimistic than Alison. If you look at the division between those women holding functional versus line management roles, yes women are more likely than ever before to be KMPs. But they are usually general counsel, company secretary, human resources director, etcetera, and not responsible for large line teams. We are still not getting enough women getting to the top executive roles, chief executives or running major divisions. It is still less than 10 per cent. There has been some movement in the numbers of women who are non-executive directors and operational KMP roles but very little movement in the proportion of women holding senior line roles.
Andrea Staines: There is a problem in Australia. The fact that you can list the ASX 50 female chief executives by name tells you it’s a problem. We need to change the way we work. It’s always been tough in the most senior executive roles, but increasing global competitiveness has meant that it now means working 24/7, 365 days a year. If we want more women in those
roles we need more men in support roles. Not talking about the work load of chief executives and also asking for there to be more women in senior executive roles means there will be less men in senior executive roles and more men in support roles. Fathers need to tell their sons and colleagues that it is OK to be in support roles. It’s got to be OK for men not to work, or to work part time, while their female partner takes on a senior executive role.
Christine Christian: I’m more optimistic. But this is not just a women’s issue. It makes economic sense and we are all responsible for solving this issue. There is a significant economic multiplier which operates when women have optimal participation in our workforce. On a superficial level, the fact that we are talking about it is good, but I haven’t seen enough structural change to allow more female executives on anything other than an evolutionary basis. Women do need to stop playing it safe – they need to take those P&L roles that give them the experience that enables them to be considered for the most senior line roles and ultimately on the executive team. They need to be fearless and shameless about articulating their ambitions so that they can be considered for the top roles. We are in the middle of a revolution at the moment – I have never experienced more discussion about this issue. If we look back to this time from the perspective of the next generation we will see that it is a mighty revolution and it is women’s workforce participation that has driven that.
How relevant is Sheryl Sandberg’s argument that women need to “Lean In” more? How much is this about women needing to take the opportunities offered to them?
Watkins: I agree that the “Lean In” phenomenon is part of it. Sometimes it is too easy to be overwhelmed by the institutional change that needs to happen but I think women can do a lot for themselves. It would be very unfortunate if we didn’t challenge ourselves as women to make a difference. In my experience that has been one of the biggest contributors to why I am doing what I am doing. Getting good feedback has been crucial. I had seen myself as modest, thought about that quality in a good way, but I realised, thanks to an extremely good coach, that modesty wasn’t necessary a good thing. It meant that I was not taking risks or setting myself up for success. At McKinsey, I was so grateful I got the job. I would have done it for nothing. With good coaching I have turned that mindset around. Now, no matter what happens, I have learned to take responsibility for it and think about what can I do to take control of it, and learn from it. I don’t want to go the other way and be over-confident. But I have no doubt that losing that has helped me.
What happened – internally, externally – to create that change?
Watkins: I did a leadership survey. I was rated highly by my peers and bosses as a good leader, but rated myself as relatively lowly. My coach pointed out that was not a good thing, and helped me to understand why. Also I worked for (former ANZ chief executive) John McFarlane – he was determined to drive cultural change. He brought in skilful facilitators who used Buddhist philosophy. It helped me to get out of that victim mentality. Whatever happens, I now have a mindset which means I ask myself why did this happen to me and what can I learn from it? It’s empowering. Also I have really changed the way I approach job interviews. I think, really think hard about the perceptions the interviewer might have about me. The Graincorp (chief executive) role is a great example. I was very excited about the possibility of the role but it was in agriculture. Choosing a female chief executives was a big ask (they’d never even had a female director before). It was a big ask to survive their blokey culture. And that was reflected in my approach post interview. I was particularly careful not to fall into the “tiara syndrome”, aka “Lean In” and Sheryl Sandberg … I did and do everything I can to get my case over the line in a constructive way. I am really assertive and confident in a way that most women are not.
Christian: Many women have the perfectionistic gene: unless they can perfectly tick off requisite skills for a role, they don’t think they are good enough. I’ve never met a young man who doesn’t already think that he is. For women thinking about taking on a new executive role, I’d advise them to take more risks. I never thought I would be a chief executive. It was not until someone asked me to take on the chief executive role that I believed it was a possibility. And at first I refused. It’s not until you take risks that you realise what you are capable of. Take that first big risk, get out of your comfort zone! After I took on that first big role, I thought to myself, “Is that all there is to it?”, and it made me hungry for more.
Staines: We need to change our performance-review systems. We need the process of performance reviews to probe for “what roles could we find for you that will be taking you outside your comfort zone?”. I left a senior executive role with an airline, and I knew that I would be unable to get a board role with the other airlines. So I had to look at deeper strategic skills that could be applied beyond industry-specific skills and technical knowledge. It’s about identifying your skills, personality style, and other attributes that are about you and the way you get things done, and not your technical knowledge base. Find out what roles your skill sets can be applied to, where will those other attributes fit? That’s what I did when I built my board portfolio.
Evans: Women tend not to take charge of the process. Part of taking charge is understanding who is around you, who can give you feedback about your performance. Who can you approach as a mentor or give you direct feedback – not always positive feedback. It’s the negative feedback that often produces the best foot forward. We don’t have those direct conversations in Australia as we should. In the US, they are very good at giving and receiving direct feedback – it happens often. But in Australia we tend to hide in the corner or end up in the toilet. It is very important – you have to take charge. A mutual friend
gave me a five-year plan for my 30th birthday. It was the best thing that ever happened to me – it forced me to look into the future. Where did I want to go? If I had continued the way I was going I would still be partner in a major law firm – I would still be there. One of the reasons I went to Asia in my 40s was because I had decided to take control of my career.
Christian: Many women take feedback too personally. Take criticism seriously, but not personally; go for real reflection instead. Make sure it doesn’t knock you down. If you do something with criticism it can be very empowering.
Are there cultural issues in Australia holding women back? There seem to be different attitudes in the US and Asia towards women in business.
Watkins: Culture is an incredibly important part of the drive for change. It really is about the role we play as parents and the role our partners play. Senior line roles are very demanding and you can’t just keep loading more and more into your life without accommodating it so you need to make a decision about who is going to play what part.
Evans: I have worked in both the US and Hong Kong. There is one big change culturally in Asia: challenges associated with childcare and housekeeping are off the table. Women in Hong Kong have access to affordable, high-quality, long-term care in the home, which is one reason why women in Asia do make it into senior line roles. I see a total lack of leadership of this issue in Australia. We have one senior federal minister responsible for women. There is still not a big enough representation of women in senior government leadership roles. In the private sector, groups like the Male Champions of Change and the Australian Institute of Company Directors have done a lot to get women into senior roles, but we are not talking about structural changes. If we keep going the way we are now, we know we’ll take another 50 years to get to 50-50, and that’s just too long to wait. American women are more confident and take more career risks. They are happy to move into roles with different responsibilities. There is still a reticence in Australia to do that. Women in Australia take their cues from the rest of the community. Our [conservative] attitudes are really hard to shift and pervade every element of our society.
Staines: Policy change needs to occur at federal level – it’s not just about the extent of female workforce participation but also about the levels women reach in the workforce. And let’s not forget academia and government departments, which are sometimes exempt from mandatory reporting. Let’s not just focus on the fact that more than 50 per cent of all graduates from university are women. But what about the composition of the IT department? How many girls are studying maths?
Evans: No one at senior levels of government seems to look to the future. A huge percentage of our workforce is due to retire soon, and the only way to fill that gap is to increase participation at all levels. But even if we increased the percentage of women in full-time work there would be a huge economic benefit to Australia, whether it is in the form of an increase in taxable income or on any other measure. We have got to get more women into meaningful full-time employment.
I agree. But I’d like us to go back to cultural changes. I am on a board in New York and get there regularly and observe the differences between our cultures. There is a stark contrast – you don’t even have the gender conversation there, it is just understood that there is a meritocracy – it’s so well accepted. One of the issues we face here is that there are not enough female role models. Everyone needs someone to show them what is possible. If role models don’t exist, there is no context around what is possible. In the US, there is a greater level of confidence in the women in business. Women in executive roles in New York don’t play the guilt game. They are quite happy to talk about how ambitious they are. They are very happy to ask for feedback. I do not believe women in Australia do enough to find sponsors. I think the situation is improving – and Chief Executive Women has done and is doing a lot to discuss the merits of sponsorship.
What about the role of mentors?
Christian: Mentors are useful but it’s usually a transaction where you are seeking their feedback and that is fine. They can help you manage your career. But a sponsor is someone who goes out on a limb for you and takes a chance on you. It’s a much more powerful relationship. I’ve found that for me there’s one sponsor – a he – who was career-changing for me. He plucked me out of (what I felt at the time was) nowhere and offered me a very senior role and after that, because of that, I felt an obligation to him. It was a much more powerful and meaningful relationship than a mentor relationship.
Evans: There’s definitely room for both mentors and sponsors – and I would add coaches and role models into the mix. Role models are very important for women in senior roles looking at how they manage their lives. Mentors are important, especially when you are less senior. Often you need someone independent to talk to when at a career changing point. Coaching is very important – in Australia we don’t do enough of it. The US has a very strong coaching culture both in corporates and professional services – women there are used to being actively coached at every stage of their career.
Staines: Yes – women need to be more proactive – all four categories are important. Like Christine, I was very lucky that I had a sponsor that did the same. They pulled me up and they did the same again. Sponsors deliver something specific. We haven’t done enough about the notion of sponsorship – but have done more in the last year or two. Sponsors do their best work for you when you are not in the room. One of the reasons women don’t go looking for them is that they are frightened that the person might say no Asking someone to be a sponsor is a way of asking for feedback. If they say yes – that’s great. If they say, “I can’t put you forward for a role in this company”, find out why or find another company to target.
What about the new generation of young women? Are they more likely to smash glass ceilings? Are their attitudes different?
Christian: I have seen significant difference in the way that young women approach their careers – far more articulate about career aspirations than the last generation. But having said that, there is still some conditioning there that prevents them from being able to put their hands up for promotion, some reticence there, a little more subdued in their approach. For that reason Chief Executive Women is so important; and very important for young women executives in particular. I hope we render ourselves obsolete when 50-50 executive roles and equal pay for equal work [are achieved]. CEW is doing so much to enable young executives to speak out more. Don’t feel bad about speaking out about your ambition. Don’t feel guilty. Bill Gates doesn’t feel guilty about building Microsoft.
Evans: The current generation of up-and-coming women are doing a much broader range of things than our generation did. At Toll and Lend Lease they are in very male-dominated industries but I am seeing great examples of young women really taking charge of their careers, doing something different. Also at King & Wood Mallesons, we’ve had 50 per cent female graduates for 30 years but very little change at top. But the big difference is that female graduates now are so more confident. The structural issues are better now – parental leave, diversity programs, lot more attention is being paid. The rate of change is not fast enough but I see bravery and women wanting to go after roles in unusual industries.
If you could change something institutionally to help get women into executive ranks what would it be?
Watkins: Institutional change – it would relate to childcare and making childcare more accessible and affordable. It is OK for us but for a lot of women earlier in their careers the lack of access to affordable childcare is a very significant obstacle and tends to be an obstacle for their careers.
Christian: The institutional change I seek is childcare. It’s the biggest obstacle in my experience – so many young women have said to me, “I just can’t manage the childcare situation”. If they could take care of that – they’d be in a better situation.
Staines: I’d like to see more leadership in government and improved research investment in the benefits of diversity. And institutionally, I would like to see more harnessing of IT to improve our work lives. What advice would you give younger women seeking an executive career?
Watkins: My advice is the same as the advice my mother gave me – stay broad, don’t go down a particular path too soon. Get as much breadth as possible. Get line experience – it opens up even more options.
Christian: On a personal note – take risks – take far more risks and don’t hold back, challenge yourself and dare to compete.
Evans: Be brave about your career and look into the future and do some planning. I see women progressing without any thought about where they’ll end up. Men tend to be goal orientated. I can see that in young men – they have a big goal, they know where they want to get to where as women tend not to articulate what they want. Be brave!
Staines: My advice to women is – ensure that you remain financially independent but financially secure enough so that you can make changes as you need to as you go along. For example, study, the ability to walk away from a company because of ethical issues, take a chance on a role that might not pay as much but will give you more opportunities down the track. Give yourself space to make a career change. And go get some international experience.
Alison Watkins Chief executive, Coca-Cola Amatil; former chief executive, Graincorp Andrea Staines Director Aurizon; co-founder and former chief executive of Australian Airlines, an international Qantas subsidiary This month’s Think Tank was organised...
Christine Christian President, Chief Executive Women; director ME Bank, Powerlinx (USA), Private Media; former CEO, Dun & Bradstreet, Australia and New Zealand Nicola Wakefield Evans Director, Macquarie Group, Toll Holdings, Lend Lease and BUPA...