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The lonely 5%: How corporate Australia fails itself

by | Sep 16, 2020 | Health, Feature

“You shouldn’t restrict yourself to the box that you come in,” Macquarie Group chief executive Shemara Wikramanayake told a business forum in early March, just before COVID restrictions dramatically curtailed our lives.

“I am not the ethnicity, skin colour, gender or height, or lack thereof, of the typical Australian businessperson.”

The UK-born, Sri Lankan-raised CEO stands in stark contrast to her fellow corporate leaders, many of whom are called Andrew, or David, or Greg or Paul, or Brad or Ryan.

She is also one of just 10 female CEOs of ASX200-listed companies in 2020 (and the highest paid CEO in Australia – earning $20 million in 2019). In fact, there are more companies with zero women in their leadership teams (14) than there are those with female CEOs.

170920 Shemara

Shemara Wikramanayake, CEO of Macquarie Group.

It makes depressing reading, says Sue Morphet who, as president of Chief Executive Women, has overseen the annual census of gender representation in ASX200 companies for two of the past four years.

“It is very disappointing that progress is so painstakingly low. I can’t believe that in 2020 Australian businesses can’t see the value of great women in their senior leadership teams,” she says.

“There are excuses, but not reasons.”

I can’t believe that in 2020 Australian businesses can’t see the value of great women in their senior leadership teams.

The figures paint a bleak picture. Of the 25 CEOs appointed to ASX200 companies in the past year, just one – Julie Coates at CSR Limited – was a woman.

It also found that of those 25 new CEOs, 96% moved into the role from the position of chief financial officer. The pipeline, in other words, is tightly fixed on profit and loss roles, but women make up just 16% of CFO roles in ASX 200 companies. Those senior line management roles in which women outnumber or equal men – HR, corporate affairs and legal – provide little opportunity to transition into the top job.

The survey found that two thirds of ASX companies – 129 – did not have a single woman in line roles for leadership.

So why has been so little movement in the topline figures of the census over four years? The number of female CEOs was 11 in 2017, today it is 10 with the percentage of women in executive leadership positions rising just slightly from 21% to 25%.

170920 jeanne johns presentation 2019 qut business leaders forum

Jeanne Johns, head of Incitec Pivot, was appointed in 2017.

It would seem there are two powerful forces holding the status quo: pipeline and culture.

On the culture side, women are overlooked during recruitment and promotions, at least in part because of what they aren’t – dressed in a suit and tie and called Andrew (or David or Greg).

They are also overlooked because of what they are: mothers who have taken time out of work, who have been denied flexible working arrangements (alongside their male partners) and are actively discouraged from returning to full-time work because of the financially pernicious childcare system.

We have to embed flexibility for both men and women at work and dismantle the pink ghetto for women after having children.

“We have to embed flexibility for both men and women at work and dismantle the pink ghetto for women after having children. COVID has revealed this is possible and now the pressure is on companies to maintain this and continue to encourage balance in the workplace,” Ms Morphet says.

“When a baby is born, the father should be asked how much parental leave he is taking and how he would like to adjust his work patterns to accommodate the newborn, instead of if the baby is a boy or a girl.”

Ms Morphet points to the sizeable – and growing – evidence that links female leadership to better business performance, including the recent report from Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

“Chairmen or board members should be asking how they can get that competitive advantage. And shareholders should be putting pressure on boards in terms of culture and performance,” Ms Morphet says.

Of course, it is not just what companies can do. Ms Morphet points to the upcoming budget and says that even relatively minor modifications to the childcare subsidy would empower 200,000 women to go back to work full-time.

“We want women across the economy to not be financially disadvantaged if they are offered an extra shift of an extra day a week,” she says.

170920 Katie Page

Katie Page, Australia’s longest serving female CEO, with husband Gerry Harvey.

There is some progress, however. While there are still 14 companies with no women on their senior executive teams, the number with gender-balanced teams has increased to 30, up from 16 in 2017.

At the current rate of change, it has been estimated that it will take 100 years to reach gender parity.

While Shemara Wikramanayake’s incredible career has blown every stereotype out of the water, the boxes that most women in business can’t free themselves from are those forged of powerful cultural, attitudinal and policy forces. It is now time for shareholders and boards to call for a better deal for everyone concerned.

And, for those who are interested, here is a list of the 10 female CEOs (and their starting dates) here is the roll of honour:

  • Katie Page, Harvey Norman, February 1999
  • Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz, Mirvac Group, November 2012
  • Amanda Lacaze, Lynas Corporation, June 2014
  • Alison Watkins, Coca-Cola Amatil, July 2014
  • Elizabeth Gaines, Fortescue Metals, February 2017
  • Jeanne Johns, Incitec Pivot, November 2017
  • Marnie Baker, Bendigo and Adelaide Bank, July 2018
  • Shemara Wikramanayake, Macquarie Group, December 2018
  • Jolie Hodson, Spark New Zealand, started, July, 2019
  • Julie Coates, CSR, September, 2019

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