What’s stop­ping women?

Ali­son Watkins and other top cor­po­rate women give their tips.

The Australian - The Deal - - Front Page - Story by: Glenda Korporaal Pho­to­graph by: Nikki Short

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...

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