SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA: If more women are to be directors, men must help them get there, writes Leonie Lamont.
Its a line for modern times: if Lehman Brothers were actually Lehman Sisters, the company would never have gone under. Yes, there’s a huge assumption in that observation, but there is no doubting the critical momentum which has gathered to push greater gender diversity in corporate life across the world. A week doesn’t go by without new research and initiatives emerging.
Whether it be Korea, where Samsung Electronics’s billionaire chairman Lee Kun-hee wants 10 per cent of executive positions to be filled by women by 2020 (a big task, given that only 34 of its 1700 executives at senior vice-president level and above are women).
Or the ”shocking” paucity of women on boards in Britain, as this week’s Deloitte’s study found, predicting it would take 20 years to meet the target of 30 per cent female board directors. Or here in Australia, where this week 15 captains of industry, including the Commonwealth Bank’s Ralph Norris, Qantas head Alan Joyce and Telstra CEO David Thodey signed up to ”Male Champions of Change”.
It could well be the decade for women. Certainly the chief executive of Westpac, Gail Kelly, at the Global Banking Alliance for women summit in Sydney this week, wanted to recapture the momentum for change embodied by those ”brave bold women of the 1960s” who pushed ”brave bold policies and laws to support women” to push equality in senior corporate and boardrooms.
But Kelly’s position – in the 3 per cent of chief executives who are female – highlights a harsh truth. Women can have talent, knowledge and drive, but without men leading the pack, there will be few bold openings. When the most senior corporate men walk the talk, corporate dynamics change.
At the Melbourne Business School at the University of Melbourne this week, managers from five diverse enterprises – Santos, Westpac, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, the NSW Police Force and ANZ – gathered. They are partnering with the school in the Gender Equality Project, researching strategies for issues including unconscious bias, resilience, targets and quotas.
The mining and energy industry, says the school’s Professor of Management, Robert Wood, have often thrown up their hands when it comes to recruiting women. Enter Santos, and the ”exceptional” focus of chief executive David Knox and chairman Peter Coates, Woods says.
With the male/female ratio in engineering running at about 77/23 per cent, Santos had decided hiring one in four women graduates wasn’t good enough. In recent years Santos has hired equal numbers of male and female graduates.
What leading men think was recently explored at an international level by the International Finance Corporation (a member of the World Bank Group), in its report Women on Boards: a Conversation with Male Directors.
The Lehman Sisters line was recalled by Lars Thunell, the IFC’s chief executive. ”I’m aware I’m making a sweeping generalisation here [but] … it is my experience that women tend to be more careful, more cautious, more willing to scrutinise the data when they prepare for board meetings.”
The chairman of the European Confederation of Directors Associations, Patrick Zurstrassen, of Luxembourg provided another perspective.
”I would say the simple presence of a lady around the table creates an unwritten obligation for men to behave like gentlemen. The debate gets more courteous. From my experience in the financial sector, women directors are both more conservative and more sensitive but less creative and entrepreneurial.”
Paul Chan, the deputy chairman of the Malaysian Alliance of Corporate Directors, says its directors programs can help reach the Malaysian government’s quota to have 30 per cent or corporate leadership positions held by women within five years.
”It is critically important that women in the corporate and public sectors are quickly bought up to speed with comprehensive knowledge and skills in board leadership and governance … Make no mistake, the marketplace is unforgiving and will respond directly to any changes in the corporate bottom line,” Chan says.
The IFC’s Monika Weber-Fahr, who was visiting Sydney this week at the Global Banking Alliance summit, says the business case has clearly been made that diversity improves governance and firm performance.
As such, the IFC has nominated 211 directors to boards of its client companies. So far, about 19 per cent of its nominees have been women, which will be increased to 30 per cent by 2015. She made the observation that in the IFC’s investments in emerging markets – $18 billion this year in more than 140 countries – diversity was not just about gender.
Given the dominance of large, family-owned companies in the developing world, diversity meant outside directors. In multi-ethnic populations, it meant a diversity of ethnic backgrounds.
And as for walking the talk, the proof will be in the eating next year for the World Bank group itself. In 2009 its leader, president Robert Zoellick, set a target to raise the number of women in management from its then 30 per cent, to 50 per cent by 2012.