Women, just be more confident: Rio Tinto boss Sam Walsh

So that's it. Gender equity problem solved. Women just need to acquire more confidence.

Well that's at least part of the problem, according to Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh.

He's trying to increase the number of women in his senior leadership positions, but is encountering some lacking self-belief along the way.

"One of the biggest challenges is that you throw a job opportunity at a bloke and he says, 'I can do that, I've got all the background, I know exactly what I should do," AAP reports him as telling a London mining lunch yesterday.

"You throw the same opportunity at a woman and ... well, 'I've never done that before, it would be a huge stretch', and what have you."

These are views we do hear from time to time from female leaders, not so much from male bosses. We've heard, over and over, claims that women will only put themselves forward for a position if they meet most of the criteria, whereas men will apply even if they meet just a couple of the requirements.

It's a convenient explanation for why things are the way they are – the majority of women just happened to miss out on the confidence gene at birth. If only we could correct it, we'd see more women in senior leadership positions and more men working in the home.

However, it's an all too simply explanation for describing what's really going on.

Full credit to Walsh for making a commitment to increase the number of women in his senior management team – his aim is to raise the percentage of women from 18% to 50%.

We're just a little concerned he's focusing on the wrong areas for improvement while trying to increase the pipeline of female talent. If it was simply a matter of confidence, women would spend their time and money pursuing personal development opportunities that would enhance our abilities to speak up and get heard, rather than acquiring formal qualifications and MBAs.

There are still plenty of structural problems with the workforce – and particularly the mining industry – that should carry much more blame for holding women back.

For one, the mining industry is still male-dominated. Rio Tinto's global workforce is 82%. Rio Tinto's doing comparatively OK on gender representation on its board – with three women on a team of 12 – but plenty of ASX-listed mining companies still do not have a single woman at the table. The national gender pay gap in mining is at 21.7%, according to WGEA, and mining continues to have the lowest percentage of female managers across all industries, at just 13.7%

There are some, but not a significant amount of female role models at the top of our largest mining organisations. Most of those at the top of the food chain tend to look a lot like Sam Walsh: white, male and in their fifties and sixties – unlikely to have taken career breaks to have children, worked part time for a period while managing a household, or to have ever found themselves as a serious minority in a workplace.

A 2013 PwC report on Women In Mining identified a number of challenges facing women in mining, including work culture, a lack of mentors, 'old boys clubs' and work-life conflicts (especially with remote-based work). A lack of confidence did not come up on the list. 

In 2013 again, Rio Tinto itself identified four key barriers preventing women from both entering and meeting their full potential in the resources industry. Again, confidence didn't feature as an isolated factor. Instead, factors Rio Tinto internally identified included perceptions that the industry is male dominated, female employee perceptions about career advancement opportunities, a lack of career development opportunities, and the location of roles. Rio Tinto introduced a number of strategies to help, including better communicating its commitment to diversity, targeting development for high potential women, role modelling successful women and offering better flexible work practice. 

These strategies seem like good places to start.

So what do we do about the confidence gap, as identified by Walsh? Should women lie on their CV?

"Certainly not, no man would ever do that," Walsh told the dinner. "But you do need to recognise that gentlemen do stretch the facts a little bit and the women here need to have more confidence in your own ability to adapt, your ability to be resilient, your ability to be flexible and responsive to a new challenge and you need to take a risk."

One wonders how many women were among the 560-plus crowd in order to hear the advice.

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is a Publisher with Private Media and the founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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