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.
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