Gail Kelly’s announcement that she will retire from Westpac has generated considerable interest and has placed the lack of women in top leadership positions firmly in the media’s spotlight.
Last night the ABC’s host of 7.30 Leigh Sales asked Kelly to weigh in. “With your departure from Westpac, the female CEO representation in the ASX 50 drops by a third. Why are we still in this situation?,” Sales asked.
“That’s a great question, Leigh. It really is a great question,” replies Kelly.
Why does Australia have the lowest percentage of women in top executive roles, compared with countries that have similar corporate structures?
Kelly did her best to answer the question. “I’d love to see more CEOs of the top 50 companies. And I’ve no doubt we’ll get there, although it is taking a lot longer than you or I would like to see,” says Kelly.
Kelly’s retirement will leave just half a dozen female CEOs in the ASX 200.
Kelly believes that more workplace flexibility is required. “I think the biggest single factor here that will support women in their goal and in their objectives to become CEOs of top, leading Australian companies is driving a more flexibility-at-work agenda – a more inclusive agenda and a more flexibility-at-work.”
Kelly says companies need to support women to live a whole life throughout their career.
“Companies and environments that support women to live a whole life and support women through the various stages of their lives when they have young children, when children are starting out at school, they may have aged parents, have other responsibilities, but support women actually balance all of those elements,” says Kelly. “Now that requires companies to redesign workplaces for everyone – not just women, but for men as well.”
Kelly says that men, too, should be able to live a whole life, which would also contribute to a more flexible workplace. “Men love that, they want that, they also want to run whole lives and they also want to be integrally connected to their young children and the development paths of their young children.”
As for Kelly’s next step? “She says she’s not sure exactly what she’ll do next, but she wants to pursue her interests in international affairs and women’s leadership,” said Sales.
It seems unlikely Kelly will be slowing down.
“Mowing the lawn and ironing the shirts and what have you. I mean… those are not my fortes” Kelly said.
“I’m a positive and energetic and I cant imagine I’ll ever be bored. I’m someone who looks to get involved and make a contribution, so, I think I’ll adjust well.
Aside from trying to tackle the ongoing issue of women in leadership, Kelly shared plenty of wisdom last night.
Kelly on stepping down from your role
“I think if all things go well, the right time, the best time is when the company’s in good shape, where there’s good momentum, where you have a strategy that’s understood, it’s being executed on and delivering, when you’ve got a high-quality, top-quality management team and strong succession in place,” Kelly told Sales.
“And if you add to that my seven-year stint in Westpac, and previous to that, CEO of St George for six years – put all of that together and I think the time is right and it’s right now.”
How to artfully evade questions about your pay
It’s a thorny subject and Kelly managed to eloquently avoid Sale’s question about her ‘$12.8 million pay packet’ but admitted that CEOs do earn a lot of money.
“There’s no doubt about that at all. There’s no doubt that that’s true globally and it’s true here as well.”
She then went on to explain that the environment was changing. So when faced with tough salary related questions, there is no need to go into detail, as it is your business.
Your support system starts at home
Kelly has managed to balance her big job, and her ‘whole life’, in part because of her ‘wonderful husband’. “That is actually where it starts, I think. I have a really wonderful husband who – we’ve been married for 37 years now. And so we’ve grown our lives together.”
She also says feeling supported and gaining respect by the people and organisations around you can also help with the work-life balance.
“I’ve also had fabulous bosses that I’ve worked with, fabulous organisations, that even though it wasn’t necessary policy, treated me with enormous respect and said, ‘We back you and trust you to actually make this work.’ And I felt so supported. And it means that you give back a lot too. So, a number of things, I think, have assisted me.”
Live the life you talk about
Gail says interest in her work-life balance because she is a woman does not bother her because she embraces it and enjoys talking about her ‘whole life’.
“I do and have attempted always to live the life that I talk about, which is live a whole life and be a whole person and bring the whole person that you are to work every day,” says Kelly. “And if I do that, I talk about my whole life. And I’m very, very proud of my four beautiful children and I think it builds an authenticity and a connectedness.”
Instead of separating your children from your professional life Kelly encourages men and women to embrace them as a part of your whole life.
“I love that level of accessibility. And I think it’s partly because I do talk about my family and talk more connectedly about living a whole life,” says Kelly.