Women’s glacial progress melted away

Glaciers melting in Iceland

Today the EOWA released the results of their annual women in leadership census.

Sadly, the apposite headline is “Women’s glacial progress melted away”.

The census is pretty simple – someone reads the annual reports of the top 200 listed Australian companies, and counts the proportion of women on the senior executive teams (ie CEO plus his/her direct reports), and on the Boards. For some reason, everyone gets very excited about the proportion of women on Boards. For my money, if you want to look at who wields the power in a company, it’s definitely the senior executive team. And within an executive team, there are some positions more powerful than others  – women are generally in the support positions, the less powerful ones.

60% of women on senior executive teams are in “support positions” – generally roles like HR, Legal, Marketing.  Only 23% of men are in those roles. Interestingly, despite many companies describing finance as “support”, it doesn’t count as “support” in this survey, perhaps because a CFO generally wields a huge amount of power in an organisation and is a very common path to a CEO position.

Sadly, most of the metrics of female representation have worsened, with Australia also falling behind other comparable countries (english speaking countries like Canada, US, UK, NZ).

This is a very rarified group of people. There are 1700 senior executives and 1504 Directors in the survey (some of the directors will be counted twice as they are on more than one Board). So does it matter?

I would argue it does, very much. The senior executive team has a huge amount of power in this country. They have power over their own employees, and power over the deployment of a vast array of private sector resources. Decisions made by this group (what project to invest in, how much risk to take) have a huge impact on people’s lives in this country.

A group like this is never going to be totally representative. They are generally very driven (male or female) and (of course) disproportionately wealthy. But although economists would argue that the marketplace will force them to make economically sensible decisions, it is easy to think of examples of male dominated companies who have done the complete opposite.

I’ve seen several presentations by Ann Sherry (formerly a senior executive at Westpac, now CEO of Carnival Australia) outlining what an enormous difference in customer satisfaction, market share, and revenue per customer Westpac achieved by the revolutionary approach of matching small business sales staff demographically to the demographics of small business owners. Surprise surprise, the women started selling to women, and the migrants started selling to migrants.

Those small business owners who hadn’t had a matching sales force had been economically disadvantaged previously. The market had not provided for them, as the companies who might have serviced them had ignored them through lack of understanding.

It is important to have women in leadership positions. They will look at issues differently, and make different resource allocation decisions. Those decisions will matter to society as a whole.

So it is disappointing that Australia has gone backwards from a pretty low base in the last year.

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