Grant Thornton's Nicole Bradley on closing the gender gap in Australia

By Nicole Bradley

We know there is a genuine desire for corporate Australia to close the gap when it comes to gender diversity. Our study shows the number of organisations with no women in senior leadership roles is actually decreasing in Australia.

While this is great to see and clearly the business case for gender diversity is well recognised; progress is still too slow. Government, businesses and individuals need to be more diligent in addressing the systemic issues that hinder progress.

These systemic issues are as prevalent today as they were decades ago when gender diversity increasingly featured on the corporate agenda. Our study found when it comes to women holding senior leadership roles, Australia sits at 23 percent, behind the global average of 25 percent. The largest gap found in Australia was right at the top, CEOs. At just three percent, following five years of decline, Australia has slipped well below the global average of 12 percent when it comes to female CEOs.

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A decline in gender diversity at leadership levels is an alarming fact for corporate Australia. Diversity is key in managing business risk, closing the gap has never been more important against a backdrop of global economic and political uncertainty as well as most industries facing significant disruption. Businesses are leading in an environment of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The only thing that is certain is uncertainty and business models need to change.

When it comes to perceptions of risks and how to deal with them, men and women view things through different lenses. Using diversity to make better decisions at a senior level will help business when it comes to navigating in unchartered waters.

Teams without diversity are at a much greater risk of going down a path without considering all the options or coming up with better answers to complex problems.

Be bold for change – making gender diversity ‘the norm’

While most acknowledge the business case for gender diversity, clearly corporate Australia is grappling with why it’s still an issue and can’t seem to smash the glass ceiling.

So what are the issues to address that will create the biggest impact on accelerating gender equality in leadership roles across corporate Australia?

1 – Let’s address the talent pipe line

Gender equality is about access to the same rewards, resources and opportunities regardless of gender. We tackle the issue by first addressing the talent pipeline.

We do this by ensuring women are exposed to a broad base of experience across the organisation including operational experience. ANZ has specifically designed a program to equip future female leaders with the right experience to progress to the top. It’s Accelerated Banking Experiences for Women program provides talented women with a generalist banking career and developed pathway to leadership positions.   

When addressing the pipe line, organisations and individuals need to own up to existing unconscious bias. Recognise it and remove unconscious bias out of hiring and advancement decisions. BHP Billiton established an Inclusion and Diversity Council which sought to identify and mitigate bias in behaviours, systems, policies and processes as one of its key priorities.

Simply put barriers to advancement and unconscious bias need to be addressed.

2 - Tackling workforce participation

This comes down to creating an organisational culture accepting of both men and women sharing parenting responsibilities. Everything from flexible roles to both genders taking up primary carer parental leave.

Our firm set a new industry standard for paid parental leave last year; offering 26 weeks paid leave to primary carers. Accessible to both men and women within our organisation; it seeks to encourage workforce participation and allow our people to achieve their personal and career goals.

To further encourage flexibility, all the roles within our organisation are flexible, leaving our people to develop working arrangements that suit the needs of the individual, our clients, their team and our firm, while allowing them to balance work and personal commitments.

BHP Billiton’s Inclusion and Diversity Council also sought to support an inclusive work environment by embedding flexibility in the way the company works. It also sought to change its charter to include the words “We are successful when our teams are inclusive and diverse.”

3 - Government’s place in the gender agenda

When it comes to examples of Government good practice for progressive gender equality initiatives, Norway sets the standard. Its Government implemented mandatory parental leave and quotas for boards. This alone saw amazing results almost immediately.  

Our survey shows the countries with the highest proportion of senior roles held by women were Russia (47 percent), Indonesia (46 percent), Estonia (40 percent), Poland (40 percent) and Philippines (40 percent).

Some of the great initiatives implemented by Governments in these countries include government supported maternity leave, government quotas on female participation in electoral districts, equal education requirements for boys and girls, and regulation around equality of pay.

Closer to home, we really need to see Government support delivering solutions to childcare accessibility and affordability and efficient tax benefits to parents. And looking how we can use quotas in boards and parliamentary representation to accelerate change.

It’s great to see our Government implementing initiatives to encourage female participation in STEM subjects and need to ensure these types of programs continue in the future.

4 - Work collectively to make it happen - be bold and take action

Both globally and across corporate Australia there are great examples of initiatives that appear to be having some impact, but more can be done collectively to start moving the top line figure for women in senior leadership positions.

It really comes down to Government and businesses being more bold and taking action because it’s an issue that’s been relevant, debated and supported for years with little change. We need to work together to be bolder and accelerate change.

If we don’t, the World Economic Forum predicts that we won’t actually reach gender equality until 2186.


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