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Articles published 'January 2015'

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What women talk about when they talk about work

By Cheryl Vardon | January 29th, 2015

Occasionally I am asked to write something just for women, as if there is another language for women about work different from a language for men.

There is a separateness about this which makes me uneasy. Consider the conversation of a small group of women chief executives and senior executives at a networking function I attended recently. About 20 were seated around the table complete with a drawcard speaker. After introductions we were asked to talk about our motivating passions for work. Most women identified as either having children or not having children and spoke easily and with enthusiasm about their work. Conversation was animated about the dearth of women in leadership and political roles. We moved on to politics, policies and the budget and shared contacts.

Shortly after I attended a similar event for male corporate leaders, with a couple of women thrown in, myself and one other. (We were seated together, some things never change.) Conversation flowed about the economy, where they had been, recent successes and sport. Questions to the speaker were about business growth and opportunity. No mention was made of children or family that I could pick up. Both functions were fun and informative and mercifully short.

I wondered what it would take for men to talk about family if they wanted to, and for women to feel free not to talk about family. In reality though the language of both groups was a shared one, focused on identity, opportunities, ideas and positioning. But what topics and language flow when the noise of competitive networking is dialled down? What happens in one-on-one mentoring with corporate leaders both men and women? Are there differences in language and what they want to talk about?

Not in my experience.

All want a confidential second pair of eyes to look over strategy and direction for career and business, and most importantly from someone who is experienced and with sharp insights into what may have been overlooked. Most know and understand their own pattern of working and have had a solid grounding along the way in policy and business strategy. As we know however there are more men than women in these roles.

What about senior executive leadership meetings? There the discussion is about policy and strategy, the progress of projects against budget and managing emerging contentious issues. The numbers again show fewer women around senior executive tables compared with men. In short there is not much about work language for women at top corporate levels which is different from men. There is a shared language about the business and an assumption that the skills to run the business are in place. There is just a striking imbalance in the numbers of men and women doing the talking.

So what happens to the language of work for women at the career “bottle-neck” period around the mid-30s when many walk away because it’s not worth it or feel just plain stuck and written out of a senior management career? We know women are still doing most of the heavy lifting with parenting and caring despite some pioneering workplace changes. We know too that work at the top level requires long hours and weekend work. However, the perceived conflict between senior roles and family responsibilities is not the only explanation for disillusion. Women without children feel the same.

The mid-30s is the time when women, in particular, need encouragement. The language we use at this time when we talk to women about work is critical. A great beginning is this comment:

“Susan Colantuono (Womens Agenda, December 4, 2014) is fed up with seeing women being continually told to do things they are often already doing, and will actually only get them so far – such as being assertive, speaking up, setting career goals, networking, honing their people skills and self-promotion. Colantuono believes that the answer is providing women with opportunities to learn the importance of understanding business and financial acumen in order to reach executive roles.”

But it’s time to look at all opportunities for development offered in the workplace and consider the language and program content with fresh eyes. A big step would be to provide rigorous leadership and executive development programs for both men and women at their career mid-point offering the same access to knowledge, mentors and opportunities.

Instead of “women in leadership programs” let’s have programs with equal numbers of men and women in small groups to tackle the hard stuff of work and leadership. All would benefit from programs which develop ease and familiarity with that shared language early on.

The programs could:

– provide financial analysis training on the company or firm’s annual results, making market comparisons;

– involve planning on how to improve the results;

– offer ideas on coping strategies for long hours at work;

– plan for introducing internal quotas for women in leadership positions.

Men and women will continue to network separately, but let’s make sure that no one is missing out in the workplace because of the perception that women need a language which is different, especially at that critical career mid-point.

Cheryl Vardon is an experienced chief executive and has led public, private and non-profit organisations at state and national levels.

This article was originally published at the AFR:

Sectors: Business

Quotas will put women of merit in top jobs

By Carol Schwartz AM | January 16th, 2015

Once again, we are treated to the oft-repeated views of Australia’s captains of industry that we don’t need quotas to lift the number of women in senior roles in Australia.

“Optional targets”, “encouragement”, “strong support” will achieve the same result. (Chanticleer CEO survey, AFR, January 6).

It’s puzzling that our business leaders are still so hesitant about following the vast array of evidence which points to the higher performance ratings and positive business outcomes of diversity.

“We see workforce diversity as essential to sustaining Optus’ competitive advantage,” CEO Allen Lew says.

So why the ambivalence? It’s not like our captains of industry don’t recognise there’s a problem. In fact, a number of those interviewed are members of Liz Broderick’s Male Champions of Change, a group absolutely convinced of the business imperative to include more women in senior roles and who ask themselves, “50/50, if not, why not?”

“We need to start treating this like any other business critical issue where you would develop a strategy to fix the problem,” says Mike Smith, CEO of ANZ.

Well, here’s a strategy that’s proven to work – quotas. In fact, it can be argued that they are the single strategy that does work in creating the desperately needed paradigm shift to increase diversity.

They worked in Norway, where quotas lifted the number of women on company boards from 7 per cent in 2003 to 40.5 per cent today.

They worked in the Australian Labor Party, where adoption of an affirmative action quota saw the numbers of women soar from 14.5 per cent in 1994 to 35.6 per cent 17 years later. This enabled Julia Gillard as prime minister to choose her record eight women ministers (five in Cabinet) from a pool of well-experienced women. Under Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party – no quotas – we are expected to celebrate the doubling of the number of women in Cabinet from one to two.

So why is there this vehement opposition to quotas when they so obviously work?

Perhaps the word “quota” has various connotations of unqualified minority groups being thrust undeservedly into positions of power? Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Women are not a minority in our modern Western societies. We are equal partners and contributors within our communities. Nor are we a minority when it comes to academic qualification, with women now outnumbering men “from bachelor degrees to the top doctoral peaks” (Geoff Maslen, SMH, Nov 25, 2013).

If it is the terminology, then let’s be creative about finding alternatives.

Of course, beyond just words, we also have to deal with the pervasive assumption that quotas are inherently “anti-merit”.

“We strongly support merit-based promotion”, says David Thodey, CEO of Telstra.

Who doesn’t?

The issue of male dominance in senior roles, be it in business or politics, is not one of lack of talent or merit on the part of women. This was the very clear experience of Martin Parkinson, past head of Treasury, when he introduced his “Progressing Women Initiative” to ensure equality of opportunity for leadership roles in Treasury. A firm target of 35 per cent women in leadership was set. Parkinson knew that it was most certainly no lack of ability or merit that was holding women back. It was the systemic influences within the department that needed radical change. His program has been an undeniable success.

Many of those interviewed by The Australian Financial Review also pointed to societal issues, particularly family and caring responsibilities, as playing a big part in creating the gender gap problem. But what better way to confront a problem and force a solution than to mandate change?

So yes, let’s do all the other things – let’s look at childcare and caring responsibilities, the pipeline, the mentoring, the unconscious bias, our employment practices. Let’s report on how we’re all doing.

But, fundamentally, we must all come to terms with the fact that quotas and merit are not mutually exclusive concepts. Which CEO is going to appoint an inappropriate or unqualified applicant to a role? As business leaders, we all want to bask in the success of the people we work with – they make us look good.

All the research over the past two decades tells us that diverse teams produce the best outcomes for business.

So let’s change the language. Let’s deal with the structures. But let’s hold ourselves to account – let’s give quotas a go.

Carol Schwartz is a director on the boards of Stockland and the Bank of Melbourne.

This article was originally published at the AFR:


Sectors: Business