Should men promote gender diversity?

Why there’s a growing push to enlist men in the gender battles.

For decades, women have fought to gain equality with men in the workplace. Unfortunately, despite significant gains the latest figures from the Australian Institute of Company Directors reveal that women in Australia make up only 15 per cent of board appointments on ASX 200 companies – a big improvement on a decade ago, but still a yawning gap.

As more and more research endorses the business case for gender diversity, the focus is moving to what men could and should be doing to help women advance. There is a growing belief that unless male leaders join the fight, large numbers of women will not make it into senior roles.

How can males help? By mentoring? Sponsoring or otherwise actively promoting women? Addressing any unconscious bias against women?
INTHEBLACK canvasses the views of three experts on men’s role in the gender battle.

Most powerbrokers in society and the workforce are  still males, says Hewitson | Photo: Graham Jepson

Most powerbrokers in society and the workforce are still males,

says Hewitson | Photo: Graham Jepson

Lucinda Hewitson

Organisational Psychologist, Lucinda Hewitson Consulting

For too long the gender diversity debate has been a one-sided conversation, according to Lucinda Hewitson. “Women really have been preaching to the converted,” Hewitson says.
There have been significant gender equity gains in the past few decades, but she says the truth is that most powerbrokers in society and the workforce are still males. “So with more men engaged and motivated to change the situation, I can see things advancing more quickly.”

Hewitson believes there is growing acceptance among senior business leaders that diversity is good for the bottom line. She cites a McKinsey study, released last year, of 180 publicly traded companies in France, Germany, Britain and the US.

It shows that companies ranking in the top 25 per cent for board diversity in 2008 to 2010 had returns on equity 53 per cent higher, on average, than for those in the bottom quartile.
With such business benefits now established, Hewitson says the big challenge is to transform attitudes to different ways of working among managers. “Workplace culture is one of our greatest barriers to change.”

She puts this down to the workplace phenomenon of “presenteeism” – the notion that being seen to work long hours in the office is often more important than real performance.
This is the environment in which many managers earned their stripes, so alternative ways of working, including part-time and flexible work, may not be encouraged.

“That type of culture, unfortunately, doesn’t do a great deal to support women – and, increasingly, men,” Hewitson says.

Until recently Hewitson was in charge of diversity and inclusion strategies at defence and security company BAE Systems Australia. She says the company’s embrace of flexible working conditions for all staff is a smart way to introduce a new workplace model that encourages diversity.

BAE Systems implemented a simple change: the chief executive insists that all executives must target a personal flexible working objective each year as part of their performance review. “This really helped to change the culture,” Hewitson says.

Noting that many executives already work flexibly through being on the road for business, she says BAE System’s emphasis has been on acknowledging and trumpeting practices such as working from home and embracing flexible work times so they become a part of workplace culture.

To help the momentum for gender advancement, Hewitson says it is important to remind male leaders that pursuing change is not complicated, expensive or arduous.
Although some female leaders – frustrated at the slow progress of women into senior roles – favour quotas, Hewitson says it is a tough concept to sell in Australia.

“But the problem is, the data is telling us that even with targets in place, we are not seeing a lot of change. If we want to see more women getting a fair go on boards, we are on the precipice of quotas.”

Lucinda Hewitson is an organisational psychologist and director of her consulting firm. She is the former head of HR: diversity and inclusion for BAE Systems Australia and is a board member of the Northern Advanced Manufacturing Industry Group and Inside Infrastructure.
Male leaders have a crucial role to play, says Broderick.

Male leaders have a crucial role to play, says Broderick.

Elizabeth Broderick

Human Rights Advocate, Lawyer, Australian Human Rights Commission

Elizabeth Broderick agrees that calling on men to advance gender diversity is a controversial strategy. Some women resent the move and see it is an acknowledgment that females need men to “save” them.

Broderick has no doubt that “we women can save ourselves”, but she is unrepentant when it comes to involving men. “If we are to get significant change in this area it [requires] men taking the issue of gender equality to other men,” Broderick says. “That’s what’s going to change the picture.”

While it may seem counter-intuitive to focus on men when trying to deliver equality for women, Broderick says the issue is “about recognising the site of organisational power and where power resides in our communities”.

Almost three years ago, in her role as Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Broderick launched the Male Champions of Change initiative, recruiting powerful men with the aim of increasing the representation of women in leadership roles.

The group counts among its number the bosses of major corporations such as IBM, Goldman Sachs, Woolworths, Telstra and, significantly, the Australian Defence Force’s Chief of Army, Lieutenant-General David Morrison.

In the wake of an army sexual misconduct scandal that came to light in June, Morrison vented his distaste through a video in which he denounced sexism and called on people with such attitudes to exit the force.

Broderick says such actions are a potential game-changer for gender issues in Australia. “He’s got a lot of moral courage. There will be a backlash against him within the military because he’s taken such a firm view on these issues.”

Broderick says the embrace and promotion of gender diversity is important on two principal fronts: first, it is a human rights issue because daughters and sons deserve the same opportunities in life; second, it has become a business imperative for organisations seeking better outcomes from an empowered and diverse workforce.

Despite the recent rise in the number of women on ASX 200 boards, Broderick says there are signs that momentum has started to stall. Again, she believes male leaders have a crucial role to play.

“We need to give it renewed impetus and that will very much be about men, because it’s men who are chairs of boards and men that [typically] have the senior positions in organisations.”

While mentoring of women for more senior roles is important, Broderick believes male sponsorship is even more critical. “What’s really going to create change is the sponsoring of women within those men-only boards, speaking up for women whose voices are not heard and actively sponsoring them into the hot jobs.”

More broadly in society, Broderick says it is time to break down stereotypes about what women can and cannot do and to address time-worn issues such as negatives around pregnant women in the workforce. “We need to challenge those underlying stereotypes and assumptions and men can start to challenge their own thinking.”

Although she is encouraged by advances of women’s status in society and the workplace over recent decades, Broderick wryly acknowledges that the role of Sex Discrimination Commissioner is likely to last for many years yet. “There’s lots of work to be done.”

Elizabeth Broderick has been the Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission since 2007. She is also a member of the World Bank’s Advisory Council on Gender and Development.

Before her present appointment, Broderick was a partner and board member at major law firm Blake Dawson (now Ashurst), where she developed the firm’s business case for flexibility in the workplace.

Xu Hua

Chinese Business Leader, Grant Thornton China

China is not just a business powerhouse – it’s also making great strides in promoting women into senior business ranks.

A new international business report from accounting group Grant Thornton reveals that females hold more than 51 per cent of top posts in China, well above the global average of 21 per cent.

Xu Hua says the result reflects efforts in recent years in China to close the gender gap for managerial and professional jobs within myriad organisations – private, government and multinational. “We are starting to see the encouraging results from all these efforts,” Xu says.

The report also indicates that woman hold 81 per cent of China’s human resources director positions and 61 per cent of chief financial officer roles – a dominance the researchers attribute to women’s capacity for attention to business detail and strong communication skills.

Furthermore, women occupy 21 per cent of board director positions, slightly above the global average of 19 per cent.

While the figures are encouraging, Xu is under no illusions: first, he notes the sample group is statistically significant but small and results may be subject to swings from survey to survey; second, there is still clearly a glass ceiling in China.

He says it is typically easier for men to get a job in China and women sometimes struggle for promotions in boom sectors such as energy, IT and construction. “So there’s still a long way for women to further improve their status in the workforce.”

Aside from opportunities for women stemming from China’s stunning economic rise, Xu says the rising proportion of women receiving higher education has been significant. Cultural reasons also play a part in women’s advancement.

“Chinese women seem to be more aggressive than their counterparts in other countries,” he says.

In the Grant Thornton survey, 75 per cent of the businesses surveyed favour the introduction of quotas to boost the number of women on boards in listed companies.

Xu says that while male-dominated boards have a role to play in advancing female representation on boards, he does not think quotas are the best option. “Businesses have to push women employees’ career development more systematically rather than simply imposing quotas for the ratio.”

Further efforts to engage and promote Chinese women will require joint efforts from business and society, according to Xu. “It is important for businesses to establish unbiased recruitment and promotion procedures in order to attract and retain skilled professional women and to better use the diversity of skills and talents available within the business.”

Xu says the rapid growth of China and other emerging economies naturally presents opportunities for women, given the need for talented managers and executives – male or female – to respond to the boom.

In this environment, Chinese women are playing a key role in driving business growth and bringing balance to the decision-making process.

“The mature economies are experiencing low levels of growth and businesses are more conservative in their corporate decision-making [as a result],” he argues.
Despite promising signs for Chinese women in the workforce, Xu says a lack of workplace flexibility has the potential to stall the career development of females, in particular. It is one area that requires attention.

“We hope more businesses [can] offer flexible working conditions and, more importantly, [reward] those who perform outstandingly through flexible working. It will allow a greater proportion of women to achieve senior positions in the future.” 

Xu Hua is the chief executive officer of Grant Thornton China, an international accounting and business advisory firm with 17 offices across China and Hong Kong.

A respected business leader, he has driven the group’s “one firm, one China” approach, enabling it to serve clients seamlessly in the mainland China and Hong Kong markets.

Key takeaways

  • Relying on men to advance gender diversity is a controversial approach.
  • Pressure to work in the office contributes to gender inequality because more women are telecommuting or seek flexible working hours.
  • Breaking down stereotypes about what women can and cannot do is crucial to greater equality.
  • There is a strong business case for promoting gender diversity to maximise the potential of the workforce.
This article is from the August 2013 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.

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