Tying gender targets to the remuneration of senior leaders would prevent them from “weaseling” out of initiatives to address the imbalance of women in leadership positions in their organisations, according to Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace (EOWA) Agency director Helen Conway.
Speaking in Sydney Tuesday night, Conway said there’s more than enough research to show the business case for gender equality in the workplace is clear. She says it’s time to implement sweeping cultural and infrastructure changes that can address the issue.
And with EOWA’s data on women in leadership positions across the ASX 500 due in November, she said the early results indicate that the gender imbalance is even “uglier” across leadership positions in the ASX 200 to 500, surveyed by EOWA for the first time.
Conway told the UN Women and Australian Human Resources Institute event that responsibility for the imbalance must be taken out of the HR department and made a key business priority. She said real change in organisations will require a business model that identifies leadership, focus and accountability as key to success, like any other business initiative.
“It’s what people see every day in business,” Conway said. “The problem is that people really haven’t thought that gender equality is important. Why would you apply a [business] model to something you thought was a piece of trash you put down in the HR department?”
Conway said organisations should set clear, numerical targets for appointing women to leadership positions that do not compromise the merit principle. And the CEO, board and senior leaders must continually and visibly reassert their commitment to gender goals.
“Once you have these targets in place, you must have action plans, you must transparently report your progress against these targets, and there’s no other option but to tie it to people’s remuneration.
“I’ve sat in corporates too long to see people weasel out of initiatives. But I tell you they do not weasel out of things when it affects their pocket … I know this is a crude initiative, and a crude way of doing it. But we’re living in a crude world and we need to get progress.”
In addition to setting targets, Conway said leaders must commit to cultural and infrastructure change to better address the family and caring responsibilities of employees.
“We need a full complement of flexible practices that are accessed by men and women without disadvantage to people’s careers, and we also need to manage flexible careers.
“It is just not right that we are in a position at the moment where it’s not culturally acceptable for men to access flexible work arrangements.”
EOWA – which will soon be reformed under new legislation expected to be passed by the Upper House in August – recognises the huge challenge ahead for business, said Conway, and is looking to work with the “carrot rather than the stick”.
“If we can’t crash through a bit now, we will never get to the point of a critical mass of women in these leadership and management positions that we need to be able to create momentum, get traction and to drive ongoing change,” she said. “Once you get that critical mass, change is easier.”
But, she added, there’s only a limited window of opportunity for change before we run the risk of “gender fatigue”, and see equality in the workplace consigned to history as a failure.
“We really don’t have a lot of time to hang around on this,” she said. “It’s quite clear that what we’ve been doing in the past isn’t working. We need a real breakthrough.”
Angela Priestley is the editor of Women’s Agenda, a new website by Private Media for career-minded women, launching in August.