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What Women Want

Saturday, March 1, 2008 - 10:15

Rather than any single cause, it is becoming clearer that the reasons why women continue to be poorly represented at high levels is the sum of many obstacles. By Jocelyn Biddle

It is no secret that when it comes to the upper echelons of senior management within Australia, women remain few and far between.

Statistics show that at each rung moving up the corporate ladder, the proportion of women diminishes. By the time you reach board level, there are slim pickings available for chairpersons who understand the benefits that women bring to the boardroom table and who are seeking to balance the ratio within a typically male domain.

The reasons for this are numerous. And it certainly doesn't have anything to do with aptitude.

In Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership by Alice Eagly and Linda Carli (Harvard Business School Publishing, September 2007), the authors conclude that it's not the glass ceiling that is obstructing women's career progression, rather the sum of many obstacles along the way. Prejudice, resistance to female leadership, leadership style issues and family demands are all career barriers encountered by women.

"In truth, women are not turned away only as they reach the penultimate stage of a distinguished career. They disappear in various numbers at many points leading up to that stage… for women who aspire to top leadership, routes exist but they are full of twists and turns, unexpected and expected," say Eagly and Carli.

According to Jane Allen, Managing Partner of Egon Zehnder, there is an attitudinal difference between men and women, with the latter tending to be more hesitant to take on "stretch" roles while they juggle their family and career responsibilities.

"Women will pause with respect to their career progression if they don't think they can give 120 per cent to a new role, whereas men are less conservative and will push forward with career progression regardless of the competing demands in their lives."

Dianne Jacobs is the Principal and Founder of The Talent Advisors, a boutique consulting firm specialising in talent management and development strategies, leadership coaching for successful executives and mentoring high-potential talent.

Jacobs has worked with many women, and a recurring theme has been that women need to think more strategically about how they take up their power and authority during their career; how to be successful in their respective roles – not only professionally, but also from a personal perspective – so that they have fulfilment and can balance competing tensions between career and family.

"Women tend to take on whatever comes their way. However, they need to be careful the roles and tasks that they do take on are consistent with where they want to go and what they want to achieve," Jacobs says. "They have to prioritise what matters and what makes a difference, so that they can be most effective and better positioned.

"For many women there are tensions as they are being stretched personally and professionally. They are trying to balance these tensions and look at how they can have a career and a family.

"Organisations need to look at neutralising the effect of women needing to take breaks in their career, using more progressive thinking in attitudes, policies and practices."

Improving support

Naseema Sparks recently resigned as managing director of M&C Saatchi, one of the top 10 advertising agencies in Australia, to focus on her board directorships with Blackmores, Mitchell Communications and Racing Victoria.

Sparks believes that the level of support provided for women has changed significantly, with greater concern and effort being given to ensure that women return to the workforce after they take a break for family responsibilities.

"Typically, it might take women a little bit longer to reach the higher echelons, but nothing is impossible. Women can have it all – it's just a matter of determining if that's what they want."

Egon Zehnder's Jane Allen believes that organisations in Australia would genuinely like to do better at offering flexibility.

"Organisations can be infinitely flexible for senior women as long as it is properly managed. The majority of the time, a woman will make compromises on behalf of the business, but there are other times when they need to manage other priorities in their lives.

"They need to give themselves permission to do this and feel that they are in a work environment where they can do so without criticism. Women need to take control of their lives and work out what is most important on a daily basis. You have to get the balance right for you and there's no magic formula."

Alison Watkins is a Board Director of Woolworths Limited, Just Group Limited and the National Food Industry Strategy Limited. She is a former CEO of Berri Limited and former chairman of Mrs Crocket's Kitchen. With four children aged between six and 15, Watkins fully understands the difficulties associated with juggling career and family.

"Women need to be proactive in putting solutions forward to their company as to how they can make it work for them – don't just wait for your organisation to find the solution for you. Women have a responsibility and an accountability to make it work just as much as the organisation does.

"Women can have all the choices through different life stages, but not necessarily simultaneously. It's a journey that has different stages of intensity through work and family; it's not something that you can turn on and off. Rather it's a balance that waxes and wanes over the years, so that you can get it to work for you through the stages of your life."

Damning statistics

Statistics show that Australia lags behind overseas countries when it comes to women holding senior management and board level positions.

The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (EOWA) commissioned the 2006 EOWA Australian Women in Leadership Census, analysing companies on the ASX200.

The findings showed that Australia had the second-lowest score out of six comparison countries, with women holding only 8.7 per cent (129 seats out of 1487) of board directorships.

This compared to: 14.7 per cent reported in the 2005 Census of Fortune 500 companies; 12 per cent reported in the 2005 Canadian FP500; 11.5 per cent in the 2006 Census of JSE-listed companies in South Africa; 10.5 per cent in the 2005 UK FTSE 100 Census in the UK; and 7.1 per cent in the 2006 Census of the NZSX Top 100 in New Zealand.

Whereas 50 per cent of ASX200 companies have at least one woman board director, in the US it is 89.4 per cent and in the UK 78 per cent.

Clearly, Australia has a long way to go. Part of the reason for this lag is an associated statistic, showing only 3 per cent or six ASX200 companies having women CEOs and 12 per cent with women in executive management positions.

Ruth Medd is the founder of Women on Boards, an online network for women seeking directorships on Australian boards. Medd elaborates the conundrum.

"Across the top 200 companies, you have to look at the source of potential new directors," she says. "Traditionally it has been ex-CEOs or people with skills and knowledge of large public companies, such as lawyers and accountants.

"Either way, it is not a large pool of people to draw from and this reflects in the small proportion of female board directors within Australia."

With approximately 30 per cent of Egon Zehnder's work specifically relating to the recruitment of board directors, Jane Allen concurs that the pipeline for board positions is typically CEO and senior executive-level managers.

"The reality is that 23 of the ASX top 50 companies don't have a woman on their executive team. Because the pool is so small, a chairman needs to look outside the typical pool if they want diversity within their board directorship.

"Many chairmen are in fact quite open and interested in discussing unproven directors who have a great knowledge of an industry, but no previous board experience. It takes a leap of faith but it is all about matching the candidate with the board and with the chairman. A woman's success on her first board will then determine her future path."

Calculated appointments

With such a low number of women in executive level positions within Australia, Alison Watkins firmly believes that calculated risks are needed to increase the ratio. "You can't promote on merit using the same scorecard as you use for men, as you simply won't have enough women to draw from," she says.

"An organisation needs to identify high potential women where it makes sense to take a calculated risk in that they are talented, ambitious and willing to respond to an opportunity. You then need to set them up for success by supporting them through it, by way of a strong mentor, a strong team, by coaching and by providing space and time in which to learn.

"In my experience, people will do everything they can to fulfil an opportunity presented to them. More of our senior leaders need to create opportunities for women, which will enable gender profile differences to be created at the top."

Branding yourself

Coming from an advertising industry background, it is hardly surprising that Naseema Sparks understands the importance of branding. And she extends this through to women having their own brand and brand values.

"Women need to identify what they stand for," she says. "They need a profile for themselves so that they are known and seen both within and outside their organisation. Questions like ‘who are you without your job title?' and ‘what are your values?' are fundamental to developing this profile."

An extension of this, particularly for consideration once into the realm of board directorships, is the importance of networking for developing your profile.

"Networking is part of the gig," says Sparks. "Women are typically good at networking among themselves, but they also need to network with men as they are often the ones making decisions about board appointments."

"There are issues around boards selecting directors in that a number of people are put forward and the selection is influenced as to whether they're in ‘the network'. The point is that women need to improve the quality of their networks so that they are known. When it's uncomfortable to meet someone, it's probably worthwhile."

Board as career path

A career path aimed at board directorship can complement the competing demands of raising a family, due to the flexibility that it offers.

According to Ruth Medd of Women on Boards, younger executive women should be identified earlier within their career and groomed for potential directorships in the future.

"Being a board director is not an obvious career path for women in their late 20s and 30s, but it is an appealing choice due to the flexibility that it offers.

"Generally, women undersell themselves so that they don't consider themselves serious contenders; but it's all about finding a board where your professional skills match what is required and where you will be appreciated.

"For example, not-for-profit boards can be a great training ground, as they teach boardroom etiquette and protocol."

At the present time, there is an understanding among the corporate sector of the issues women face as they juggle career and family responsibilities. There is also an increased recognition of the benefits that women bring to the executive arena.

In order to truly drive change and realise these benefits, there needs to be a focus on creating support systems and mechanisms so that women can effectively manage and achieve both a fulfilling work and home environment, rather than having to make a choice between the two.