Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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The rise of women is not a decline of men

Published 28 October 2013 11:39, Updated 26 November 2013 18:35

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The rise of women is not a decline of men

Telstra chairperson Catherine Livingstone and CEO David Thodey. Photo: AFP

The advancement of women in business is not a zero sum game. In other words, men do not have to lose for women to have an equal shot at promotion and influence.

Increasing the participation of women at all levels of an organisation has a direct correlation with improved performance - which means growing a business. A growing business means more opportunity for everyone – male and female.

Accounting firm EY has interviewed nine of Australia’s most powerful male leaders to get their perspective on gender diversity. Its report concludes that it is time to stop pitting men and women against each other in the rhetoric around the promotion of women.

As EY’s chief executive, Rob McLeod, says, creating opportunities for women does not equate to prejudice against men.

“At EY, when we compete for new clients, we don’t do it at the expense of our current clients. Gender diversity should be viewed the same – by expanding your business you are creating more opportunities for everyone,” he says.

EY regional diversity and inclusiveness leader, Edyta Torpy, says it is time to stop casting the issue as a “battle of the sexes”.

She says it is also time that men started initiating their own discussions on the issue: “Women have been talking to other women about this and not getting far enough. This isn’t a women’s issue, this is a national issue.

“Men need to talk to other men about it – they still hold most of the positions of power.”

Gonski: Fear of female competition

Company director David Gonski knows a lot about power, and says some men are resist equity initiatives because they are afraid they will have to give up what they see as their rightful place.

“Firstly, I think there are some men who fear having to compete with women. I think these men are in the minority, but they do exist. Secondly, I think it is easier for everyone to go along with the norms of today than it is to challenge them,” he says in the report Women in Leadership – in his own words .

“I think that it is incumbent on men to open up the opportunities for women in business. It is incumbent on women to say that they are not going to be wives and mothers all the time – it’s a job-share scenario,” he says, adding that when his own children were young, he assumed his wife would shoulder a greater share of the responsibility, juggling work and children.

“If the babysitter didn’t turn up I assumed that she would solve it.”

Gonski also encouraged people to redefine what a successful career looks like, and to accept that career breaks should not hinder men or women.

Men sometimes need to step out of their usual environment to understand what it is like for women. “I recently attended a women’s forum where there were two male and 180 female attendees. Most men live their lives not realising that we are in a privileged position until we sit in a room where we are faced with the reality of being in the minority.

“Most men realise on some level that they are in a different position to women and that this position can drive real and lasting change.”

Thodey: ‘Why I believe in targets’

CEO of Telstra, David Thodey, says the low numbers of women business leaders is partly a result of Australian culture and “macho male dominance”.

However, he says there is a far greater degree of honesty now in discussions about the problem.

He says Telstra has had targets for women for six or seven years and, despite a trend away from such measures in the US, he is still a firm believer in their effectiveness.

“The reason I believe in targets is you have got to know where you sit.”

Hartzer: It is not an act of tokenism

Brian Hartzer, chief executive, Australian financial services, at Westpac, says there is an economic imperative to get this right.

“To me, productivity is really about three things: being more innovative, helping more people get into and stay in the workforce and, most of all, it’s about helping people achieve their full potential.

“What does that have to do with gender equity? Well, everything. We know innovation comes with diversity of thinking. We know diversity in executive teams and in the boardroom helps drive better financial results.

“We know the rise in female employment has boosted Australia’s economy by 22 per cent per cent since 1974. And we know closing the gap between male and female employment rates would boost GDP by up to 13 per cent.”

Westpac achieved its target of having women in 40 per cent of leadership roles two years ahead of schedule last September, and is now aiming for 50 per cent leadership representation by 2017.

Hartzer says Westpac has made it a principle that at least one woman should be on the shortlist for every senior position: “Not as an act of tokenism, but as a statement of serious intent”.

“I know this last point is controversial for some people. But I believe it’s important, because whether they are chasing their first job, restarting a career, or seeking a leadership position, talented women deserve to be seriously considered, rather than dismissed out of hand,” he says.

Gonski says it is ridiculous that in Australia, people are appointed to senior roles from only 49 per cent of the population.

“It’s a situation uniquely acute in Australia. Currently, we have both one of the world’s lowest rates of educated women participating in the workforce and one of the world’s highest rates of female education.

“In other words, we are getting the world’s worst return on the multi-billion dollar investment we make in female education every year.”

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