Why women should stop focusing on the boardroom and get into the executive suite

Leading Australian businesswomen claim we need less focus on getting women onto boards and more on getting women into line management and the senior executive of leading companies.

Speaking on a UTSpeaks panel in Sydney last night, Caltex chairman and Westpac board member Elizabeth Bryan said the focus on boards serves little good because we need women everywhere in the power structure, especially in the executive.

She said that increasing board diversity would create great careers for a few hundred women, but that achieving a critical mass of women in the senior executive ranks would see tens of thousands more women excel. “Boards are not where the power is, or where the money is. It’s in the senior executive. That’s where we need change,” said Bryan.

Bryan was joined on the the panel by Judith Fox, member of the ASX Corporate Governance Council and director of policy for Chartered Secretaries Australia; Christine Holgate, Blackmores CEO and MD; and Verity Firth, former state government MP and CEO of the Public Education Foundation Ltd. The panel was moderated by journalist Deborah Cameron.

The discussion on how to see more women reach senior executive positions focused on developing measurable objectives for committed leadership, and women increasing their skills and confidence to go for key roles.

“Any change management process needs an executive who is absolutely committed to it,” said Fox. “Put it in the performance plan. Tie it to someone’s bonus and watch it cascade down the organisation. It’s the most effective method.”

Invest in your skills
The panel was unanimous about the need for women to invest in learning and qualifications to prove their capacity, and especially stressed the importance of financial literacy, such as knowing how to read a profit and loss report.

Another issue discussed by the panel was on encouraging and equipping women to develop the experience required for senior executive roles. Currently, women tend to excel in support roles rather than in line management, and this holds women back from reaching the highest management levels. “Without line experience, you will never be CEO,” said Bryan.

Holgate argued women who work in support roles should focus on reaching leadership levels in their areas, and then broaden their management experience to prove they’re equipped for big challenges, both to their managers and themselves.

“We are our own victims. Job descriptions are an example. A woman looks at the criteria of ten things and looks for the three she can’t do. A man looks at the six he can, and they’re all over us like a rash,” said Holgate.

Leadership is possible, but not for everyone
While the panel was positive about the opportunities for women to reach the highest levels of business, they noted such levels were hard to achieve for anyone, and even harder for women. “Yes it’s possible for women to reach leadership jobs, but it’s a hard row,” said Bryan, stressing the need for increased workplace flexibility. “It’s a lonely, hard slog.”

Holgate agreed that being a female CEO could be “really bloody lonely” and making tough calls was unavoidable in the top job. “I still want you all to try to be CEO, despite telling you it can be really hard,” said Holgate, who described the excitement of great business results as being on par with that feeling when her AFL team Collingwood won the grand final.

Be honest about power
Firth’s reflections on the brutal nature of public life and developing her resiliency with age and experience led into a discussion about power. “What surprised me as a young thing in politics is how fiercely men guard their power,” said Firth, who explained she had to get used to standing her ground and being tough.

Bryan explained that the same issue existed in the private sector, but operated in a different way. “Power in private companies is much more passive aggressive and it’s much harder to deal with,” said Bryan. “It gets very, very serious and you need to be prepared to admit we’re playing with power.

“It’s not that we aren’t good enough, it’s not that we don’t work hard, but we need to be ready to go that extra step,” she said.

This article was first published on LeadingCompany’s sister site, Women’s Agenda. 


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