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Aiming high: are stretch targets the answer to gender inequality?

Thursday, April 7, 2016 - 14:58

By Susan Muldowney

What is a stretch target?

More ambitious than targets and less restrictive than quotas, stretch targets are about pushing the boundaries of what may be possible. They allow organisations to signal their goal and seek creative solutions to achieve gender balance at every level of a business.

How do they work?

Stretch targets are regarded as ‘targets with teeth’. To be effective, they should be backed up by practical workplace changes that drive progress towards the end goal, such as gender balance on recruitment shortlists. Stretch targets can be aligned with remuneration and publicly reported, so individual executives and entire workplaces are held accountable for progress.

Libby Lyons, director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, says targets, stretch or otherwise, must come with such accountability. “That means building targets into KPIs for everyone with responsibility for recruitment, and reporting progress to the board to ensure they are treated as a strategic and important business priority.”

Stretch targets are one way companies can start to even out gender imbalance, but they must be backed up with practical workplace changes.

Who is using them?

Engineering firm GHD has set ambitious targets for women in management positions and across its workforce. It wants a 40 per cent female workforce by 2020, with at least 30 per cent of professional and technical roles held by women. It has also introduced systems such as balanced shortlists for internal and external recruitment. The ASX has set itself similar stretch targets and measures the performance of ASX leaders against its goal of 40 per cent women at all levels of the organisation.

Can one size fit all?

Like any strategic plan, stretch targets should be tailored to the organisation. “I’m encouraged by positive stories from corporate Australia about the effective use of stretch targets, with ASX being a good example,” says Lyons. “However, it’s up to each organisation to find the tools that will be most effective in their particular circumstances. The most important thing is that employers make the commitment to understanding the particular barriers to gender equality in their organisation and take action to address them.”

This article orginally appeared in Leadership Matters, AIM's bimonthly magazine exclusively for AIM Members. To find out how you can be a part of Australia's peak body for managers and leaders, please click here.