Rio Tinto boss Sam Walsh is right but women's confidence isn't to blame

06 Jul 2015

Rio Tinto's boss Sam Walsh is dead right when he says, "We're missing out on 32% of the talent that's out there", because of the gender gap in his company. But women's lack of confidence isn't to blame

Walsh said he "is looking to fill the company's senior ranks with more women, but says female employees need to be more confident". Rio Tinto's latest Workplace Gender Equality Agency report for 2014-2015 shows Rio's overall female participation at 18.5% of the workforce and with a slightly higher rate of 22.6% as female managers and executives.

This is on par with the resources industry average of 17% female participation overall. The good thing about resources is that they know that they have a gender balance problem, and they want to fix it, not just as a feel good measure but because they know that it will increase productivity and performance. The Centre for Gender Economics and Innovation works with the Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) to roll out the AWRA Recognised™ program to increase women's participation in that sector. 

Walsh offers the idea that women don't always have the confidence to come forward, unlike men who can be over confident when it comes to their ability, women might hang back and not feel confident enough to promote themselves in the same way as men. Whilst this might be the case for some women, it is a generalisation and an oversimplification of the issue.

The issue of women being more visible is a result of long entrenched structural barriers in the way that we design and manage companies, behavioural expectations for leaders and cultural norms that can hamper women.

I have interviewed many hundreds of men and women in my work and have found that many women still constrain themselves as the family's primary carer, even when they are being offered a senior promotion at work.  This often converts to a supporter mentality that when coupled with a woman's more collaborative management style, can be seen by men as less confident.

Organisations, however, can do a lot to harness these valuable assets by redesigning their leadership structures and building in the attributes of a leader rather than just recognising skills and experience, which more often favours men. This process tends to highlight structural barriers based on values judgements and stereotypes, which once removed will benefit everyone.

Research conducted by the Centre for Gender Economics and Innovation worldwide shows a clear link between improved gender diversity and business performance. It's common-sense but many organisations are still unsure how to increase gender balance because they continue to look at the same old human resource solutions rather than looking more broadly at how they have gotten to the current position and then over lay that with a gender lens and this is Gender Economics.

Gender diversity remains one of the great frontiers in unlocking business underperformance and setting up a business culture for performance. It's the next business transformation.

Susanne Moore

Susanne Moore is the Founder and Chair of The Centre for Gender Economics and Innovation and is credited with developing the emerging fields of Gender Economics (macro) and Diversity Economics (organisational). Now a Sociologist after a career in ICT and business, she has a focus on Gender, innovation and performance at an organisational level and as well as consulting, she is conducting a research project on 'The Profit Impact of Organisational Gender Diversity programs". She brings a practical business experience coupled with academic rigour to her consulting practice around Gender Economics.

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