International Women’s Day: tips from Australia’s top businesswomen

It’s International Women’s Day, and SmartCompany’s list of Australia’s top female entrepreneurs highlights that Australian businesswomen are going great guns, heading companies that bring in revenue of almost $6 billion.

Westpac chief executive Gail Kelly – once described as one of the world’s most powerful women – has vowed to advocate for female leadership and revealed some secrets to success for both women and companies looking to change the status quo.

“Because I did not go out and talk about it (the need to promote more women) it was being negatively perceived, which was personally damaging for me, potentially, and also not good for the organisation,” Kelly reportedly told a Sydney lunch yesterday.

“It was one of those things that, if I had my time again, I would have done it from the very beginning.”

Kelly also revealed the secrets for women to rise to the top in the business.

“If you have chips on your shoulders you will never get there,” she said.

“The women in this room (senior Westpac executives) are no-nonsense, pragmatic women – women who deliver, who go about their jobs in a pragmatic, no-nonsense way.

“That is the way you are going to get success.”

And there was advice for businesses, too. Kelly said she was a “huge believer in flexibility.”

“If you give an individual a sense of accountability to shape their own work life, their productivity shoots up.

“One of the reasons I am passionate about it is because I experienced it in my career all along.

“When I had four young children and I was trying to manage a career path, I had people who trusted me and backed me.

“In my experience if you do that with good people, they will pay you back in spades. You don’t try and micro-manage people, you actually back people to make it work.”

SCO Recruitment founder and chief executive Larissa Robertson says a brick wall she keeps hearing about is that “a woman can’t take five years out of the workforce to look after her children and expect to be at the same level as men that haven’t taken the time off.”

“This may be relevant in the corporate world where you are indoctrinated into the company culture and belief system but, in reality, people should be judged on their skills and what they can do – not the amount of hours they have worked,” Robertson says.

An IBISWorld report yesterday detailed that within Australia’s top 2000 companies, women hold 2222 out of 14,294 senior executive and board-level positions.

With women accounting for about 15.5% of Australia’s senior executive and board-level positions, Australia is about on par with America and fares better than the United Kingdom, where the figure is about 12%.

By contrast, countries with quotas – such as Norway – have about 40% women in senior positions.

The bad news is that although women’s workplace participation rate has risen about 5 percentage points over the past decade, pay equity remains the same – women’s earnings remain at about 80% of men’s earnings.

A survey by accounting firm Grant Thornton has found that only 24% of senior management positions in Australian private businesses are held by women, down three percentage points from 2011.

The survey is based on the expectations of 12,000 businesses across 40 economies.

Grant Thornton says with Australia now ranked 21st for women in private sector senior management roles, it’s imperative that business set – and reach – clear targets around key indicators.

“There needs to be continued public discussion and benchmarks set on the implementation of policies and practices like flexible work arrangements, diversity programs, and the availability and affordability of child care that will enable and encourage women remain and continue to progress in the workplace,” Nicole Bradley, head of its diversity initiative, says.

Bradley added that many Australian businesses already offered flexible arrangements, but needed to address factors such as the perception of those on flexible arrangements, as well as the high cost and low availability of childcare.

And with the Australian Institute of Company Directors stating that women comprised 13.8% of company directors on ASX 200 boards by the end of January this year, up from 8.3% two years prior, a Diversity Council Australia issues paper cautions that Australia risks following other major economies by appointing the same women as directors, the so-called ‘Golden Skirts’ phenomenon.

“Although gender equality in the boardroom has a long way to go, recent promising changes present a historic opportunity to embed the Australian ethos of ‘a fair go for all’ into our nation’s boardrooms.

“With this in mind, when looking at women board members in Australia in 20 years’ time we hope to see a genuinely diverse mix – multicultural, Indigenous, lesbian, mothers and women with disabilities,” the issues paper states.


Visit Women’s Agenda for more news and advice for professional women.


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