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Order of Australia nominations do not reflect our diversity

By Anne Summers AO | June 26th, 2017

Some years ago, I declined to provide a reference for a well-known public figure who was being nominated for an Order of Australia. I had not been a referee for this woman’s initial nomination, but the office at Government House in Canberra that administers the awards had sought my views as to her suitability.

Rather than put in writing my low opinion of this particular person, I simply replied that I would prefer not to comment. Whether my refusal to endorse her amounted to an effective veto I cannot say. All I know is that she has never received an award and while she would be none the wiser, since nominations are supposed to be confidential, whoever put her name forward must wonder why on earth the nomination did not succeed.

We keep being told by Sir Angus Houston, who runs the advisory council to the awards, and by Sir Peter Cosgrove, the Governor-General, that the only way to increase the paltry number of women receiving awards each Australia Day and Queen’s Birthday is for us all to nominate more.

The numbers of women honoured has never exceeded a patently unjust 30-odd per cent (after being much lower until very recently), and there are no signs of this changing, especially at the most prestigious upper levels of Companion of the Order (AC) and Officer of the Order (AO).

And it is not going to be fixed by increasing the number of nominations.

Apart from the implied insult that it is somehow our fault – for not nominating more – that so few women are apparently deemed worthy of being honoured by their country, this is simply not a practical or realistic way to change the system.

Nominations can fail – as my anecdote illustrates – but the biggest flaw in the system of deciding who will succeed and at what level is that it is capricious, secretive and hypocritical.

There is no transparency to the system. If your nomination fails, you are not told, let alone given a reason. If you try to probe you will be told, in the nicest officialese, that it is none of your business. Freedom of Information laws do not apply to the awards, a decision upheld by the High Court in 2013 after a concerted campaign by a Queensland woman, Karen Kline, to access the documents used to assess her several failed nominations of a man she felt was eminently deserving.

We are told that no one is honoured who has not been nominated, and that the process from nomination to being honoured generally takes 18 months to two years.

If that is true, how is it that John Howard received an AC in the 2008 Queen’s Birthday honours, just seven months after he lost the prime ministership, whereas Julia Gillard had to wait 3½ years, until the 2017 Australia Day awards, to get hers, and Kevin Rudd is still waiting?

Why is it that Adam Goodes in 2014 and Rosie Batty in 2015 were deemed worthy to be Australian of the Year but neither has received an Australian honour?

It’s not just women who are under-represented in our honours system. No count is made of Indigenous or people of CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) backgrounds so officially we don’t know, but a quick scan of the lists each six months gives you a pretty good idea.

This is not going to change until we have the courage to be assertive, to rely less on nominations, and reserve at least a portion of each set of honours for people who are actively sought out for consideration. Call it quotas or call it affirmative action. It’s what the British do, and their recent lists have been 50 per cent women, more than 9 per cent from a BAME (Black, Asian or other minority ethnic) background, and 8 per cent had a disability. Plus, they honour recent heroes such as Olympic champions in the same year as they won gold for their country.

We don’t do that. But we could.

We could ensure that our lists of honorees look like the Australia that exists, where a wide range of people of both sexes excel as citizens and deserve our recognition, not just the usual safe white bread parade of businessmen and academics.

It won’t happen under the current highly selective and secretive vice-regal system.

We could emulate the British and move the process to the Cabinet office in the Prime Minister’s Department. We could also set up small committees of experts in areas such as sport, the arts, science etc, and empower them to recommend worthy people for consideration and implement fast-tracking to supplement those nominated by the community. And to be mindful of gender and other overlooked backgrounds.

It shouldn’t just be former Liberals PMs who get such special treatment, nor those – and I know people who have done this – who’ve figured out how to game the system to get AOs and ACs.

This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald.


Sectors: Government

Three ways to stay focused on diversity

By Amy Poynton | January 19th, 2017

By Amy Poynton and Mithran Doraisamy

The issues of inclusiveness and diversity have had a significant and encouraging level of attention since 2010 through initiatives such as the recommendation by the ASX that companies disclose gender objectives in their annual reports and the establishing of the Male Champions of Change group by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.

However, 2016 proved a challenging if not backwards year; despite a good level of policies, guidelines and awareness of inclusiveness and diversity, we can’t seem to sustain the change.

The most startling examples played out in the extraordinary prejudice and hate showed by the US president-elect including the rhetoric of building walls, vilifying and sexually harassing women, and religious registration and segregation. These thoughts and actions are seemingly acceptable by some parts of our society.

In Australia, there was a recent example on social media regarding a simple photo of two senior leaders meeting Ita Buttrose. All three people in the photo are women. All three are senior leaders in their fields. However, the comments about the post were about the attractiveness of one woman, the fashion choice of another and lastly that Ms Buttrose was the subject of one commentor’s sexual fantasy. There were zero comments about event or the achievements of the women.

No doubt Ms Buttrose has dealt with this sort of attention throughout her successful media career, however it struck us that such commentary that would have been unlikely had she been a man. Sadly, we can just hear the response of social media commentators to this observation: “Geez, they were just kidding. Can’t you take a joke?”.

Renewed focus

We have seen businesses being formally recognised and awarded on the success of their advances in inclusion and diversity in the workplace, yet too often the individual experience can be different.

We came across a woman who was returning from parental leave after having twins. She needed more time allocated to family commitments and asked if she could work four-days a week. She was given redundancy because it was deemed that the role had to be full-time.

Rather than being distracted by such stories, there are three things leaders can do to renew their focus on meeting their business inclusiveness and diversity objectives.

First, what you pay attention to gets the attention of your people. It is imperative that leaders role-model the importance of the strategy and goals by incorporating it into the way you work every day.

Secondly, you need to ensure your leadership team and the board strongly support the inclusiveness and diversity agenda.

Finally, you need to measure and monitor the progress of your goals.

Right now, there is a real risk of disconnection between what you meant to say and what is heard as your corporate message bumps against the tsunami of different (and sometimes fact-free) external messages.

We recommend that you remain vigilant about what you say and how you say it. Then, consistently do what you say.

Amy Poynton is an executive and consultant specialising in performance improvement and transformation. Mithran Doraisamy is an executive, consultant and board member specialising in strategy, digital and transformation.

This article was originally published in the AFR. Read the original here.


Don’t blame “merit” for lack of executive diversity

By Ann Sherry AO | December 13th, 2015

If merit is the solution to building diversity in the workplace then something is wrong. As we end the year it is time to reflect on whether the “merit” selection process in our organisations is delivering.

A commonly used defence when questions are asked about diversity in companies is that “we select on merit”. It is a defence that assumes that “merit” ensures all candidates are assessed equally, that no bias exists in the selection process, and that the jobs are described in a way that attracts a diverse candidate pool.

As Diane Smith-Gander said recently, women are being held back by preconceived ideas of female skills and leadership style as well as gender-based interpretations of how they should behave. While in that example Diane was speaking specifically about the advancement of women, the truth is that preconceived attitudes can stymie broad diversity in a workplace.

What is “merit” really? It is the idea of selecting somebody who is considered worthy of a position. Inside organisations it is a process that describes best endeavours to make selection processes fair. In reality it is a blind spot, a word to make the process feel fair even when the outcomes of selection processes clearly result in something else.

Merit-based processes should have outcome measures, which are the real test of the application of a fair process. Outcomes such as the diversity of the candidate pool, the diversity of a short list of potential candidates, and ultimately the diversity of the employee mix by level that is the result of the application of real “merit”.

Look around us. The lack of a pipeline of graduates from universities and career options were once put forward as the reason for there being so few senior women in senior positions. That excuse, however, disappeared many years ago as women filled the ranks, not just of university enrolments, but also attained superior results from universities.

The same can now be said of the pipeline within organisations where a significant number of middle management roles are filled by women.  In Australia, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency data shows that across all industries and companies, women hold 15 per cent of CEO positions and 27 per cent of general management.  In the ASX 200 companies, 5.75 per cent of CEOs are women. More men named Peter are CEOs than women. So what has happened? It appears the barrier to entry hasn’t disappeared. It has merely shifted. It is no longer a pipeline problem but is more an experience/style/commitment/suitability problem. And that is where the “myth of merit” is exposed.

None of those statements or convenient rationales is actually about a person’s competence, capability or effectiveness in a role. They are simply subjective views and a form of screening.

It means we are not as successful as we could be, given our collective investment in people development and our shared challenge to drive national productivity and organisational capacity.

The nation’s prosperity requires all of us who run businesses, select people or sit on boards to ask hard questions when we see candidate pools that are all of one gender, reflect a monoculture, are age specific or just happen to look like the recruiter or recruiting manager. That is when it is time to ask, where is the talent? Why are we choosing from such a narrow group? Is this the future of the business? Does this match our customer profile?

The world around us is changing fast. Customer habits and preferences are shifting. Technology has created whole classes of business types that were once unimaginable and new ways of doing business that only a decade ago were not considered possible.

How do we face these challenges with the same mindset, talent base and prevailing attitudes? We can’t. We need to open our business and processes to new ways of thinking, new talent pools and new ways of measuring outcomes in our businesses.

It must also be remembered that the community and our workplace teams are watching very closely. Australians have become accustomed to living in a wonderfully multicultural society. For the most part they understand and embrace diversity.

Given that life experience, employees will be the first to notice if their workplace fails to reflect the interestingly diverse community in which they live. Organisations that fail the diversity test might not just get probing questions from their boards. The questions might be posed in a different way from the shop floor but employees will increasingly want to know why their workplace appears to be a cultural island — or a throwback to another era.

The “myth of merit” needs to be challenged and thinking shifted so we are measuring what we do in our people management as we already do in all other parts of our business operation. Then we will be able to capitalise on the talent pools we have at our fingertips and currently not using as well as we could.  We will be able to drive innovation and prosperity for another generation.

This article was published at the AFR.

Sectors: Business

Australia needs to fix management pipeline to get female CEOs

By Annalisa Haskell | April 30th, 2015

We keep lamenting and wringing our hands about Australia’s appalling progress on gender equality in the senior leadership of our companies’ boardrooms, business tables, small businesses, academic institutions and, even in my own local government industry, which is proudly focused on community representation.

No one debates that it seems odd there is a dearth of female talent at the top when we have, for quite a while, educated our girls at what appears to be an even faster rate than the boys. But one thing’s overlooked and it’s not rocket science.

In Australia today (and for some time) there is not anywhere near an equivalent pipeline of female managers, ie people responsible for operational line management decisions such as budgets, projects and people. There are a twice as many male managers than female managers.

It’s a fact that if there is less in the bottom, then there must be less at the top.

This is true even in local government, where we are committed to having community representation, diversity and supportive flexible work practices (under a hugely generous industrial relations framework). Our recent local government workforce results from what has been probably a world-first collaboration with my organisation, PwC and 80 NSW councils, quantitatively reinforces this picture. We already knew women were missing as councillors (23 per cent of all mayors and 30 per cent of all councillors nationally) – they are also missing from management.

You don’t get to the senior leadership heights if you have not travelled through lower and middle-management ranks first. That means getting the best talent into a first-time manager role and then promoting on merit into upper management. This requires focus and confidence in the skilled individual and commitment from organisations.

So why are Australia’s gender pipelines very different sizes?


Goldman Sachs and JB Were’s 2009 report, Australia’s Hidden Resource: The Economic Case for Female Participation, quantified startling realities and it has little to do with the fact many women become parents at a time their careers take off. Women all around the world have children and a lot more of them are leading international business and government when compared with Australia.

The facts are: Australian women are overly concentrated in very specific industries – education and training, health and social assistance, and retail, and are only half as likely to become managers (despite them being equally likely to be in full-time roles in a professional capacity).

Management skills are a fundamental stepping stone to leadership. It builds confidence and competency in: decision-making, resource management, self-accountability. It’s also competitive and requires effective communication skills and emotional intelligence. Managing and motivating others different to you, builds personal and professional resilience. So if women are not there to start with, then they miss this critical development and will continue to be relegated to “support roles”.

This is the unspoken issue of the talent debate missing.

In NSW local government, not only do we see mirror images of low female managers (31 per cent), it’s lower again in the larger, complex and asset-intensive councils (28 per cent). Precisely where there should be more opportunity, there is less, which seems counter-intuitive.


What’s going wrong and when? The answer may lie in a combination of environmental factors.

Children live up to expectations. Are we setting equally high expectations of our daughters as our sons? It’s clear it is the girls that are not completing the foundation subjects such as year 12 maths, which is in worrying relative decline.

Are we ensuring girls are making highly strategic, as opposed to convenient or safe, career choices? Are they being set to build transferable skills for the longer term? Are they properly being informed and considering the risks and trade-offs of industry choices (high vs low paid) and subjects (breadth vs specialist)? And why are we so keen to: a) push the merits of fitting careers around having families, rather than force the adult discussion (finally!) as to how childcare system is a necessary support for everyone’s careers or b) sell the populist “work part time” mantra. Anyone with business experience knows its career suicide unless you are in enviable positions of having built some professional power (for example, an experienced lawyer) or you are lucky to work for a large, enlightened, Australian company or multinational. Both are rare.

Serious career-planning to build transferable skills over the long term needs to be the focus. Continuing to pat ourselves on the back about how well we educate our women is just not addressing the absence of skilled women across our varied industries. But the most worrying thing, regardless, is the alarming, continued over-representation of our working, skilled women in support functions and not line management.

Let’s stop lamenting and get cracking. Parents, schools, universities, business and government need take responsibility to plug the gap together for the future economic and social health of our girls and our economic and social future.

Annalisa Haskell is chief executive officer of the Local Government Professionals Australia, NSW, and a director of YMCA NSW.

This article was originally published at the AFR here.

Sectors: Business