Women in leadership – time to take destiny into our own hands

As published in the Australian Financial Review on 04 March 2014

Let’s face it – we all know that there aren’t nearly enough women in leadership positions in corporate Australia, despite a wealth of evidence that shows it makes good business sense.

Unfortunately the change of pace is glacial, and I for one don’t want to have to explain to my daughters that they’ll be earning less and progressing more slowly just because of their gender.

This lack of progress has me becoming even more passionate about playing a role in trying to get meaningful change faster, it has me asking what is it going to take and for the first time asking whether it is time for regulated quotas, something I never thought I’d want or need to do.

Thankfully I believe that in most cases the days of full-blown sexism are coming to an end, but unconscious bias is alive and well. By this I mean behaviours that maintain the status quo, and these are what we need to challenge.  Whether it’s accepting fishing from the same pond when recruiting, creating an environment that can exclude, such as when you allow early morning or late evening meetings to be scheduled without consultation or consideration or overlooking development plans for part-time employees, we all have a responsibility to call out and correct habits which may exclude women.

I think rather than waiting for someone else to fix this, rather than waiting for regulation, we should take our destiny into our own hands.  I’d like to invite business leaders around Australia to join me in implementing a three point plan to get more talented women into executive positions. It involves contributing at a personal, organisational and nationwide level.

Firstly, do what you can to develop the skills and networks of women around you. Become personally involved in mentoring and sponsoring women. If you’re attending a business event, ensure women you work with come too.  A commitment to change needs to come from the top, and before you think it sounds too hard, take a look at the Chief of Army’s remarkable efforts in driving change through a thoroughly male-dominated organisation.

Secondly, make gender diversity a priority for your organisation. At Microsoft we’re not where we want to be yet but we have clear targets as we aim for diversity and we relentlessly measure results and revise strategies. We have targets for recruiting females and we ensure women are included on all interview panels and candidate pools – regardless of the position.

But having a plan that you don’t hold people accountable for is a waste of time.  In the business world we hold people accountable for growth targets, market share targets, product development targets, P&L targets – our teams are measured and rewarded for them.  Diversity should be a business imperative and as important as our financial measures.  It should be monitored, measured, reported and rewarded.

Thirdly, we need to make flexible workplace arrangements the norm, not the exception.  Why shouldn’t men and women, regardless of their parenting status, vary their start and finish times and actual place of work? We may just end up with happier, more loyal and productive employees across the board with the bonus being that nobody feels working mothers get “special treatment”.

I do recognise that some organisations, because of the nature of the work, are unable to offer workplace flexibility. However, today there are no technical reasons why most people need to work from the office. If we can achieve that, the available talent pool also expands as people previously bound by conflicting commitments can join the workforce.

But to do that, managers need to understand that they are better off having their eye on outcomes, not the clock. It shouldn’t matter where or when the job was completed as long as it was satisfactorily completed on time.

Which was what we found in 2012 when we implemented activity-based working – where I, like the rest of the organisation, unchained myself from a dedicated work space (an office or a cubicle) and became free to work from anywhere.   At the time, more in hope than expectation, we handed back an entire floor, 20 per cent of our head office space, to the landlord.

The initiative has been so embraced that we are continuing to challenge ourselves to take the model to another level and at the end of last month we handed back another floor.

Because we believe in flexibility we don’t force people to work remotely, but now people understand that their work can align to a greater extent with their lifestyle, we have increased job satisfaction, productivity and retention rates, particularly among women, while becoming a more attractive employment option in a highly competitive market.

And just in case you think that this gender equality activity is new to Microsoft and I’m just beating the drum because I am a female CEO, it’s worth noting that during my two pregnancies – my daughters are now 12 and 9 – I applied for, and gained, promotions within Microsoft.

No-one thought to say: ‘Well, she’ll be heading off on maternity leave soon, so count her out!’ I like to think they looked at ability, not gender, which is the sort of view we should all be taking.

Pip Marlow is Managing Director of Microsoft Australia.

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