Changing the leadership landscape

The face of leadership is changing in Australia with a strong cohort of women leading the charge, but there is still work to be done. The leadership landscape needs to be disrupted, with women accounting for only 17.3% of organisational leadership roles, and representation on ASX 200 boards at only 20.1% it begs the question: what can be done to increase women's representation in leadership? At the Women in Focus Annual Conference these were some of the issues that were explored.

At the root of the issue is gender equality, and as Cathy O'Connor explains, “Proactive structures need to be in place in business for gender equality.”

Cathy Burke, CEO of The Hunger Project (THP), has seen firsthand the impact of empowering and educating women through her work with THP. Empowering women to lift themselves and their villages out of poverty, Cathy has seen that leadership can come from anywhere, and to lead, it is not always necessary to have a leadership role. Women often believe they are incapable of creating change or leading, but Cathy is passionate about changing that perception. "We are never too inexperienced to make change," says Cathy.

When Wendy McCarthy was approached to sit on her first board, she felt underqualified and underprepared, but with a lot of passion and someone behind her who believed her voice would be valued, she took the opportunity and has never looked back. Wendy’s advice for women is to leap first and figure out how to do the rest along the way, learning from those around you. “You say yes first, and learn how to do it later. There will be an army of good women and men there to help you. If someone asks you, it’s because they think you can,” emphasised Wendy.

Wendy’s journey to her first board position was punctuated by the experiences behind her and a burning desire to create change. Early in her career as a teacher, Wendy discovered that there was a discrepancy in the potential for career progression between men and women, and when she wanted to return from maternity leave she realised there was a systemic problem that needed to be addressed. “I realised they were preparing men for careers and women for jobs,” says Wendy, something she would dedicate her life to changing.


Leadership panel at the Women in Focus 6th Annual Conference. From left: Cathy O'Connor, Wendy McCarthy AO, Launa Inman and Carol Schwartz AM.

And Wendy has certainly created a huge impact. “I always saw myself as a beneficiary of the hard work Wendy and her cohort had done in smoothing the pathways for women to achieve a level of seniority in corporate roles,” says Carol Schwartz, Founding Chair, Women's Leadership Institute Australia.

Cathy O’Connor had what may be considered by some an unusual career path for a woman CEO. As Cathy puts it, it was ‘the same path the blokes took’ – she climbed the corporate ladder, beginning as a junior employee at a radio station in Sydney and is now the CEO of NOVA Entertainment. 

Cathy is a sincere believer that one of the keys to changing the staggering gender inequity in business is by enforcing strong representation of women in a diverse range of leadership roles. She encourages people to call out both positive and negative behaviours and celebrate the stories of success. “It’s about calling out those behaviours when you see them, and it’s about telling the stories of women in industries.”

Launa Inman, Non Executive Director of Commonwealth Bank, considers one of her key responsibilities as a leader as being the ultimate customer advocate. “I am the voice of the customer," Launa says. It is a voice leaders must be always be advocating, and in some sectors, change is needed. 

Without high levels of representation of women both on boards and in government, the rate of change will not quicken, therefore it is essential for women to be involved in a leadership capacity, explained Carol. “Diverse groups create the best outcomes and we need debate and diversity for good outcomes as a nation,” says Carol. 

So what can each woman do to create ripples of change that will turn into a surge that can no longer be ignored? "We have to continue to challenge our cultural systems and behaviour,” says Wendy. Cathy O'Connor believes the key is in reminding yourself that you have a voice and can contribute to the conversation and change, "It all starts with me; how I show up, what I can do." And Beata Koropatwa, Founder and Executive Chairman at The Confidante, says that complacency is not an option, it’s up to all of us to be catalysts. “I believe the greatest failure is to do nothing,” says Beata.

What are you doing to support women in leadership?

To celebrate International Women's Day 2017, CommBank's Women in Focus are hosting events around Australia throughout the month of March, find out more and reserve your ticket. We’d love to see you there.

All the above suggestions will help to improve matters. In addition, we need to go deeper, which is what I'm working on.

When we say the root cause is gender inequality, we ignore the next question, which is 'What's the root cause of gender inequality?'

In my view, the fundamental barrier to progress with women's leadership initiatives is the toxic, systemic legacy of patriarchy, which is characterised by divisiveness, privilege and an obsession with control. Put another way, trying to improve society without understanding patriarchy is like trying to go to the moon without understanding gravity. In the corporate world, there seems to be a general reluctance to name patriarchy as the elephant in the room.

I plan to do what I can to change that, via a communications project that encourages what I call ‘Courageous Conversations’ around very sensitive and awkward topics such as privilege and patriarchy. The first part of this project is a live presentation I have developed, called ‘Pozzy to Cozzy’ (Freeing our Planet from Patriarchy).

The phrase, Pozzy to Cozzy, refers to the current global transition from a patriarchal to a non-patriarchal ‘human operating system’. Pozzy is my term for a P-OS or Pyramid Operating System, which is today’s dominant and dysfunctional way of being, living and working. Cozzy stands for a C-OS or Circle Operating System, which is a new, more nurturing way of leading and functioning, one that has been struggling to emerge for some time, but which is now poised to expand exponentially.

Regarding the heart of the presentation, I’m still refining a simple visual model plus the main messages. If anyone would like to give me some feedback on these, I’d appreciate it. Here’s a link to a clip I made outlining the core content:


This is amazing Graeme. I love that you've shared this. You're absolutely right, it's time to have these courageous conversations around privilege, diversity, ethical leadership and purpose driven business. For these conversations to start our leaders need to share these values though, regardless of gender.

Thanks for sharing what your working on @graemebowman, I'm watching your youtube clip now. I completely agree with what you've said about the patriachal system being dysfunctional. I came across an interesting research report this morning from Harvard Business Review which backs what you're saying about control. 

I think Wendy McCarthy hit the nail on the head when she said Women are being prepared for jobs while men are being prepared for careers. If we decide to have a family, women physically have to take time off, there is no way around that. After having children, there is often either a want or need for flexibility, and once again this all too often becomes the responsisbility of the mother. This is where I feel gender equality falls down. 

It's discrimination on so many levels. It shouldn't be weird for the father to request flexibility to help raise his family, and it shouldn't be assumed that the mother will naturally put her career on hold to raise the family. Flexibilty in the workplace is crutial to gender equality. It needs to be normalised for both women and men. 

This is my goal, and through my company Jobs Shared I'm hoping to create flexible jobs in industries where flexibility is not the norm. Job sharing allows for a role to be covered full time, so the employer can offer flexible work and have full cover. The employee doesn't have to wait for the elusive high level part-time role, only to find that they work full time anyway to keep up with the work load. 

By embracing job sharing we can give both men and women the chance to have a career and look after their family. But it needs to be embraced by companies, and that means they need to start looking outside the box when it comes to filling roles. 

I want women to be able to not have to worry about if they can still have a career after kids. And I want men to not feel weird about wanting to embrace flexibility so they can be more hands on. If we can make that transission easier we'll have a more diverse workplace and ultimately more women in senior positions. It's a big challenge, but we can't do nothing.  

This is what I'm doing to support women in leadership. 

I couldn't agree more Simone. Disrupting the notion of flexibility is absolutely key. Some companies are much further along the path than others, but it should be a conversation around output not hours.

Thank you Natalie, an interesting article and a heated debate below.