I was fortunate to attend the Executive Women Australia’s (EWA) Executive Luncheon with The Hon Joe Hockey on Thursday, 2nd May. The main agenda was to discuss how to advance senior leadership and board opportunities for professional women throughout Australia. According to The Australian Institute of Directors, the latest percentage of women on ASX 200 boards is only 15.7% (as at 19 April 2013).
“It was inspiring to see so many of Australia’s business leaders in the same room. Having these influential people discussing a gender diversity solution was a great outcome”, said Executive Director and Founder of EWA, Tara Cheesman.
Surrounded by 350 women, with only a few (brave?) men in the room, it was interesting to witness different reactions in response to the discussion, in particular to comments by key speaker The Hon. Joe Hockey MP, Shadow Treasurer.
Mr Hockey’s speech, or rather informal talk (he’d decided to throw away his formal speech at the last minute), was, “from the heart”. As resonating as I think it was meant to be, unfortunately it didn’t impress everyone. Some women afterwards claimed they felt he was a bit patronising trying to talk to them using emotional anecdotes rather than directly addressing the agenda. However, Ms. Cheesman commented that from the way Mr. Hockey spoke so freely and passionately on gender diversity, it was clear the topic was close to his heart.
Mr Hockey’s stories and anecdotes were interesting though. He reminisced about his grandmother and mother and how they had been strong figures in his life, not only as wives and mothers, but also as key contributors to the family businesses. Mr Hockey claimed to have learnt early from these women the value of partnerships, in the home or in business, which should be based on respect and trust rather than on colour, gender or background.
Getting to the real issues, Mr Hockey raised some valuable points. He stated that the quality of Australian boards cannot be enhanced by only appointing men. “It’s ridiculous”, he said. “We need diversity and the leadership of this country needs to reflect diversity of the country we seek to lead.” Mr Hockey went on to say that if you get more women on boards, you will enhance profits, and Corporate Australia needs to realise this.
“Mr. Hockey raised an important point when he said shareholders should be pushing for gender diversity across the boardroom. There is strong evidence of the economic benefits of workplace diversity, and this is a consideration businesses will no longer be able to ignore,” said Ms. Cheesman.
Despite praising women who currently sit in senior and public roles such as the Governor General and of course, our current Prime Minister (joking that naturally, as the opposition, Mr Hockey wanted to get her out), he insisted there needs to be more female leadership in this country. Mr Hockey said women need to be more prominent in public service, on boards, and be remunerated just as fairly and equally as men. He also suggested it was the responsibility of men to help them, such as with mentoring, and to “step up to the plate”.
“Mr. Hockey’s call for men to take a greater responsibility in the mentoring of women in the workplace was a step in the right direction. We need a more proactive approach to motivate cultural change, and get to a position where all appointments are based on merit and experience, not gender,” Ms. Cheesman said.
However, Mr Hockey’s suggestion that women need to convince husbands, brothers and sons that their daughters and grand-daughters deserve the same opportunities and that women need to encourage men to see them in the same way, was received with mixed feelings. Some women commented afterwards that it sounded like we were living in the 1950s and he’d implied perhaps women needed permission from their male counterparts to progress.
Mr Hockey spoke of how he didn’t want his own daughter to be treated any differently to his sons.
“Tell people to look into the eyes of their daughters or grand-daughters and ask them is it okay for them to be disadvantaged”, he said. He suggested when women were discounted from being considered for opportunities, they use a powerful line: “would you like your daughter to miss out like this?”
In a Q&A session, MC Whitney Fitzsimmons (of ABC’s Business Today) asked Mr Hockey what policies he would implement to further assist women getting on boards. He didn’t directly answer the question but made more of a statement suggesting that a change of attitudes through action was the way to shift cultural beliefs. He reiterated that women should be employed based on merit and experience and not their gender. “It’s about profitability, not community service”, he said.
Asked as to whether it’s a good idea to have quotas on Australian company boards like in Europe (France is phasing in a 40 per cent quota for women on boards by 2017), Mr Hockey responded by saying that instinctively as a Liberal, he would be against it – it involves more regulation and that quotas should be a last resort. “The more government regulations you have, the greater the impediment to be flexible”.
When asked should there be government subsidies and tax incentives to get more women on boards and in leadership roles, he simply answered “No. There’s not enough money…subsidies don’t work”.
Although to many, Mr Hockey’s dialogue may have seemed a bit politically-driven to influence female voters, he did make some valid points. One point in particular, that women need to be advocates for each other and be supported by men to move forward.
Ms. Cheesman said that while no policy announcement was forthcoming, EWA was determined to push forward on an action plan to bring more women into executive roles. Alas, we push on.
To find out the more about the Executive Women Australia visit www.executivewomenaustralia.com.au.