It’s a long way to the top if you want to wear high heels

A redefining of “merit” is needed for Australian organisations to combat gender inequality and meet gender equity targets, senior female business leaders have told HRR.

Diversity Council of Australia CEO Nareen Young said “as soon as you change the definition of merit, you’ll see diversity targets being met”. She cited Westpac’s public commitment to having 40% of senior leadership roles filled by women by next year. Banking and financial services recruitment firm Profusion Group CEO Rod Jones told HRR some of his clients took their equity targets “very seriously”, mandating an equitable mix of CVs be presented for each advertised role.

Young commended the action, saying it showed some firms were willing to take proactive steps to reap the benefits of a gender diverse organisation.

“We’ve heard for years that women can’t be leaders because they need more skills, or they need coaching, but [gender equitable] companies have shown that to be nothing more than rhetoric from the ‘power culture’,” she said.

‘Inherent misogynism’ given license

Young said Australia suffered from an “unconscious and inherent misogynism” which had been “given license” by some media commentators when criticising Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

“Lots of men aren’t like this, but they aren’t the ones in positions of power,” she said.

Fiona Murfitt, business director with DuPont, said working in an organisation with a number of high profile female executives, including a female CEO, meant diversity was taken seriously.

“One of our core values is respecting people, and we wear our core values on our sleeves to an extent, so we have an organisational culture of inclusivity,” Murfitt said.

However, she said in her early career in a different sector she experienced behaviour “that would simply not be tolerated today”.

She concurred with Young’s idea about overhauling the definition of “merit”, but said changes should be applied for all diversity targets not just gender. “There is an imbalance regarding women on boards, and there is a reason why women are underrepresented at senior levels despite women being more educated and part of the talent pool and it can only be overcome by promoting diversity,” she said.

However, Murfitt said the advice she would give to young women starting their careers is “don’t make gender an issue”. She said focussing on gender may make women “jump at shadows” about perceived inequity. “If someone underestimates you as a woman, take advantage of it!” she said.

‘Be bold!’

She cautioned women to not “fall into the trap of thinking if you work hard you’ll be noticed”. “Look for mentors, male and female, who will help you advocate yourself,” she said. “Don’t be shy, be bold!”

Australian Human Resources Institute CEO Lyn Goodear told HRR she was “in principle” opposed to mandated equity targets, but said it was “inconceivable not to set objectives and measure against them”.

“Once a business sets a key performance indicator, it then places it front of mind and plans to achieve it. With such a mechanism in place, subsequent measurement of achievement can occur against it,” she said.

Mixed teams return improved finances

Dr Gemma Munro, MD of Inkling Women, a training and development consultancy for female leaders, said gender imbalance had significant economic impacts. “Unless executive teams are made up of at least 30% women, the financial performance of organisations suffers significantly,” she said.

Munro said women needed to better “hone strength” to become great leaders.

“Feminine power is absolutely a strength. It speaks to intuition, outstanding long-term decision-making, inclusivity and deep listening skills,” she said.

She said gender was “playing a decreasing role in how others describe successful women” but the imbalance was more “how much more difficult it can be for women to achieve success, particularly in large organisations”.

Both Murfitt and Young favoured organisational equity targets. Murfitt said targets gave organisations a tangible measure to aim towards and Young said a starting point was needed to overcome the “backlash culture”.

The Workplace Gender and Equity Agency has released a business case document for HR to use to argue for gender equitable change.

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