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What some powerful businessmen say about women in leadership

/ Feb 07, 2013 9:22AM / Print / ()

Attending an event put on by a women's networking group, you don't always expect a strong male presence, or even for the few men who do attend to dominate much of the discussion.

But yesterday's launch of Chief Executive Women's latest piece of research was different – with more men than women taking the microphone to have their say on why getting more women into leadership positions matters to the organisations they chair, run and sit on the board of.

Some men shared strategies that have helped achieve better results on gender diversity.

Others discussed how taking a punt on a female CEO has driven a new form of business success.

And others again even mentioned "the Q word": quotas. They were even met with some cheers, although quotas did not dominate the conversation.

The comments followed a presentation by Melanie Sanders of Bain & Company outlining how CEW's survey of more than 800 business professionals found women needed to see other women in senior executive positions in order to believe their company had an inclusive culture supporting a diverse range of leadership styles.

The reaction to the findings from senior business leaders in the audience – including Carnival's Ann Sherry and Barclay's Cynthia Whelan – largely centred on personal experience: what's worked, what hasn't, and how bringing women into top jobs has helped shift company culture.

St James Ethics Centre chairman Peter Joseph shared his experience chairing the Black Dog Institute, where the board appointed a female CEO who quickly made a dramatic and visible difference to what was previously a male-dominated culture.

Life insurance company TAL's chairman, and Virgin director, Rob Thomas shared similar stories of working with boards to make "courageous" decisions and appoint outsiders to key management roles. "Take someone totally out of their comfort zone, from a different area," he said.

Macquarie and Origin Energy board director Kevin McCann noted that the top ASX20 companies were getting more women into their leadership teams, and the top 200 were getting better, but that the resources sector was falling behind. He suggested corporations look to how universities have managed to increase their proportion of female academics. "University life is burdensome but it does provide flexibility that the women academics value," he said.

iiNet director Peter James said the cultural shift required must start at the top – with organisations working harder to get more women into senior executive and board positions, and addressing the challenges specific to their industries. He noted that just the night before at a Town Hall event in Sydney, founder of the internet, Dr Tim Berners-Lee, talked up a need to engage more young women in the Information and Communications Technology sector.

KPMG CEO Geoff Wilson shared what his firm does to retain the female talent pipeline, including hand-selecting male and female partners to participate in a new diversity committee and giving all partners diversity goals for their individual teams.

It should be noted that these men don't necessarily represent a cross-section of what Australia's male business leaders really think about the need to see more women in leadership – some are part of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Liz Broderick's Male Champions of Change, and it takes a certain interest in the topic to attend such events in the first place.

But it's reassuring to know there are two genders actively involved in this conversation.

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