The rate of progress for gender equality and women progressing to senior levels in Australia is painfully slow. Recent OECD statistics have seen Australia drop to 14th place worldwide for women on large publicly listed companies and 17th place for women in parliament. The numbers of women in parliament has been almost static for 15 years.
In 2002, when the (then) Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency conducted its inaugural census of women in leadership, Australia had a mere 8.2% of women on boards in the ASX200. Ten years on, this figure had only fractionally improved to 12.3% of women. The number of female chairs is in the single digits.
What does this mean for business and women in Australia? Simply, that legislators and boards do not represent the diversity of their constituents and customers adequately. This translates to poorer outcomes for women and other minorities when policy is legislated, and means that boards and executives at the top table are not performing at their best, which has obvious outcomes for customers, shareholders and stakeholders.
Juliet Bourke says in her book Which Two Heads Are Better Than One? (2016) ‘, men and women operate at their best when there is a gender balance.’ If this is true, doesn’t that mean that executives, leaders and managers should just get on with creating gender diversity?
The benefits of having a gender diverse board and leadership group are well researched and published. Gender diversity in leadership results in organisations outperforming due to inclusive leadership and diversity of thought at the top table. Inclusion and divergent thinking creates greater opportunity for innovation, customer satisfaction, growth, superior financial outcomes and higher productivity levels:
· US Fortune 500 companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 53 per cent. (Catalyst)
· Companies with gender-diverse boards performed an average 7% better per year than companies with no women on their boards. (Centre for Gender Economics and Innovation)
· Companies with greater leadership gender diversity were 15% more likely to have financial returns above their "respective national industry medians". (McKinsey)
· A 6% increase in the female participation rate would boost the level of GDP by 11% (WGEA)
Again, if the business case for diversity is there, why isn’t Australian business making more progress?
Firstly, Australian leaders, who are predominantly male of Anglo-Celtic backgrounds, need to take deliberate and purposeful action to increase their own awareness about the lack of gender diversity. Michel Kimmel has given a Ted Talk which eloquently speaks to the phenomenon of white male privilege. Translated, this means that men who are white do not see or perceive their own gender and, as a result, they do not see the barriers to full workforce and leadership participation by women or other minorities.
“Addressing gender equality within organisations will not happen accidentally, and like any other business issue, a strategic and systematic approach is required.” WGEA
Back to practicalities. How do you bring diversity to the top table? Apart from being the right thing to do (after all the world is comprised of 51% women), what business leader wouldn’t want to create better outcomes for customers, shareholders and stakeholders? Here are 5 steps to get started.
1. Get knowledgeable
There is a range of reasons for a lack of progress when it comes to gender equality in the workplace and in leadership. Reasons include structural (systems, policy, process) and cultural (bias, societal beliefs about gender roles, lack of female role models) which require understanding at an organisational and employee cohort level.
Leaders should ask: What are the current numbers of women at all levels in my organisation? Where does the leadership gender gap begin to widen? Why does it widen? What is it like to work around here, for women and men! Spend some time undertaking qualitative and quantitative research to ensure you are aware of what the current state is and where the most impact can be had.
2. Get serious
Policy, targets and transparency. Develop policy, set targets and be transparent about the gender diversity journey the business is going on. Make the right leaders accountable for communicating and embedding the policy and the targets into the organisational operating rhythm.
We know that an engaged workforce is an imperative for business success. Employees overwhelmingly want to feel valued in their workplace, therefore a culture of transparency, accountability and understanding that women are recognised for their uniqueness, their talent and the value they create is a business imperative for progressive, forward-thinking companies. Communicate, communicate, communicate throughout the journey to diversity and showcase when the wins and best practice start to occur.
3. Get organised
Leaders often launch helter-skelter into diversity initiatives without understanding the what and the why. This in inherent with danger (and cost!) as the initiative, training or resources allocated may not be targeted and tailored to where the greatest need is. Know the gender diversity numbers. Know what your target state is. Allocate funding. Allocate the right resources.
4. Get resourced
Who have you got designing your approach to gender diversity? Is it the HR manager? Is it a business leader? Is it a woman? Is it a team? Allocating resources to achieve a more diverse, equitable and equal workforce isn’t the accountability of just the HR manager. It is the accountability of the business leader to ensure that, like any other business imperative that requires a positive outcome for customers, shareholders and stakeholders, the right people, process and tools are allocated. This means time, funding, advocacy and creating a culture where the whole team is mobilising and motivated to achieve the shared objectives for an inclusive, gender equal workplace.
5. Get done
There is a great saying ‘Done is better than perfect.’ Businesses waiting for the perfect time, the perfect strategy, the perfect team are going to be left behind in the race for talent and high performance. Interventions to create gender equality in an enduring and sustainable manner can be both tactical and strategic. However, the characteristic most common to organisations who are successfully navigating the journey is a systematic, deliberate and accountable approach by the organisation's leaders.
Achieving gender equality is a journey, with arguably no end because of the many phases and opportunities that are identified over a long period of time. However, the journey to a sustainably diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace is a worthwhile one for business of all sizes. Diverse and inclusive businesses will have engaged, productive employees, highly satisfied and loyal customers and members along with superior financial outcomes.
Businesses will succeed when they implement gender diversity strategies that spark people’s engagement, increase cross-team collaboration and demonstrate that this is a business where people of all genders and walks of life are valued, respected and included.
 Which Two Heads Are Better Than One? Juliet Bourke 2016