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Published 06 March 2013 23:58, Updated 29 November 2013 09:57
“Sometimes women will bring different strengths,” says Thoughtworks Australia managing director Lindy Stephens
Lindy Stephens was convinced that quota systems were the wrong way to increase the number of women in positions of power.
But three years after adopting a system of positive discrimination, the managing director of IT consultancy Thoughtworks Australia has changed her mind.
Like many people, Stephens was worried quotas and targets would bring charges of tokenism: “I was concerned that people would think that I was here because I was a woman, not because I was good at my job.”
But seeing the process in action has brought on a conversion.
“I’ve done a 180 degree about-turn – because it has worked,” she says.
Thoughtworks’ new approach to recruiting is dramatically increasing the proportion of women in the company. It’s still operating in an industry that struggles to attract women but is now experiencing the associated benefits that greater diversity brings.
“Sometimes women will bring different strengths,” she says.
Three years ago, the company’s US head office mandated that its graduate intake be at least 50 per cent women and that the gender balance in more senior appointments be improved.
Last year, the company (which has 2000 employees) hired 200 graduates worldwide. Sixty per cent of those graduates were women.
“It is interesting but more than anything else, it is a psychological change,” Stephens says. “In Australia last year, more than 50 per cent of our hires overall [not just graduates] were women. Three years earlier, we said that wasn’t possible, that it couldn’t be done.”
Before making the change, Thoughtworks would have been lucky to have hired a couple of women a year in Australia.
Now it takes on 20. Of its three most senior consultants, one is a man.
There is still a long way to go, despite these advances. Women make up 27 per cent of the company’s professional services staff and 20 per cent are software developers.
Of the 16 leaders listed on the Thoughtworks global website, four are women. Two of those women are heads of the traditionally female areas of human resources and recruiting. Rebecca Parsons is the chief technology officer and Stephens is the lone woman among seven managing directors.
With 20 years in IT behind her, Stephens knows what it feels like to be outnumbered. In the past she tried the age-old tactic of trying not to draw attention to the fact that she was different from all the men around her.
“I kept quiet about it,” she says. “But now I do the exact opposite and I am happy to talk about it.”
Stephens’ own conversion to the usefulness of quotas and targets is being echoed by an increasing number of prominent women and men who are frustrated with the glacial pace of change.
While many companies, particularly large ones, have voluntary targets to improve gender balance, it is the prospect of legislated quotas that frightens the business community.
Their argument is that imposed quotas will introduce a new, greater level of regulation and government control over who companies can hire and promote.
But despite the at times extreme reaction of some business leaders to the idea of forced change, how likely is it?
Usually, those supporting such measures couch their support in terms of it being a last-ditch threat to get recalcitrant organisations to take the issue seriously: it is, they say, a big stick to hold over the heads of those who refuse to budge.
As feminist author and former Fairfax journalist Catherine Fox says: “There are some diehards who say nothing else has worked, let’s do it.”
For instance, Katie Lahey, when leader of the Business Council of Australia, said waiting for women to be promoted on “merit” had not worked.
“I’ve pooh-poohed quotas for years, but other strategies have not worked and it’s time for a national debate on quotas for women,” she said in 2008.
Lahey is now managing director Australasia at executive search firm Korn/Ferry International.
Federal sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said last month that quotas had disadvantages as they were a “one size fits all” solution. But she added that, “if it’s necessary to give a jolt to a misaligned system, we should do it”.
“Within another year if we are not seeing significant change, we need to be actively discussing putting in place quotas,” Brodericksaid.
Some argue that there is little difference between a voluntary target that a company truly embraces and having a quota.
Others say there has always been a quota system – one that favours white men.
As chairman of engineering firm Arup Group (UK, Middle East and Africa) Robert Care said in 2010: “It just seemed to me that we’ve actually had quota systems for 150 years.
“We’ve had a lot of corporations in existence which have been about coming from the right school, from the right golf club – so actually the quotas are implicit.
“They’re not defined. They’re not explicit. If one were to move to a quota system, you would actually be merely balancing out the existing quota system.”
People to voice recent support for quotas include former Qantas chairman Margaret Jackson, Governor-General Quentin Bryce, Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson, federal shadow treasurer Joe Hockey and UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
But those who have come out against the proposal are legion.
Workplace Gender Equality Agency director Helen Conway says that in the current climate, legislated quotas are an unlikely prospect.
“Ultimately, it is a matter for the government of the day,” she says. But if there is not enough change, the government may not be able to withstand public pressure to legislate.
Hockey may support the idea – “he has a very active wife and is more exposed to the issue around women in business than other people,” says Conway – but both Coalition leader Tony Abbott and the Prime Minister Julia Gillard have voiced their opposition to such measures.
“I don’t believe, currently, the government has the appetite for it,” she says, and cites her agency’s position is in step with this: “We don’t support quotas either. We think regulation leads to a tick-a-box attitude.”
Certainly, the experience in Norway shows how this route can have limited benefits. Nearly 10 years ago it led the world in legislating that company boards must have 40 per cent women but since then the proportion of women filling senior management roles has been stuck at 10 per cent.
It is not hard to parachute a few well-credentialled women into board positions – women hold 15.4 per cent of S&P/ASX 200 directorships, up from 8.4 per cent in 2010.
But shifting attitudes to promoting women to line management roles is much more difficult. It requires real structural change.
Since 2010, the number of women in line management in this country has flatlined or regressed.
About two-thirds of S&P/ASX 200 listed companies and two-thirds of the S&P/ASX 500 companies do not have a female executive in the top 10 key management positions. In the top 200 and the top 500, only 6 per cent of line managers are women.
As Conway points out, people have focused on calling for more women on boards “because that is where they think the power is”.
“But the real power is in the executive ranks,” she says.
She adds that even though a move to a quota system is not likely at this point, it is a useful discussion to have.
“It puts a focus on the problem. It gives the issue a profile.”
As Fox, former Corporate Woman columnist at The Australian Financial Review, says: “It is a really healthy discussion. Nothing else has worked until now and I think we need to look at all the options.”