To my fellow CEOs, Managing Directors and Boards of Directors

It’s been great to hear so many of you in recent years declare your commitment to driving gender diversity. You have all had great women in your life – mothers, daughters, and sisters – so I know you genuinely care. This year the theme of International Women’s Day is “Make it Happen”.  I can assure you it won’t without you!In 2015, only one in four of key management personnel in Australia is female. The further up the chain you go, the worse it gets; only 10 per cent of key executives in ASX 200 companies are women. Even in the boardroom – where representation has mercifully picked up from a tragically low base – men still account for four in five directorships.

I know such a slow rate of advance wouldn’t be acceptable if we were discussing profit, market share and growth. Soft targets don’t cut it in those discussions and they shouldn’t here. We have to make it clear gender diversity is a strategic priority where we will commit to bold goals, invest to drive growth and commit to measuring performance.

First up we need to clear away some myths that have become excuses.

Setting targets means dropping the bar.

Too often people argue that committing to hard targets on diversity would mean lowering standards. I don’t accept this and you shouldn’t either. Finding and promoting talent is part and parcel of embracing a diverse workforce. Believing your organisation hires and promotes on merit is not enough. Why? It turns out judging merit is not an exact science. Such decisions are frequently swayed by bias because many decision makers have set ideas of what leaders look like and, quite often, those stereotypes are male. I put my hand up here – the IT industry has long been male dominated. We need to actively fight against the stereotypes by ensuring equal representation on interview panels and challenging bias wherever we see it.

I want to hire women but I can’t. There’s a pipeline issue

I am not denying that this is a challenge in certain industries, but it shouldn’t be a blanket excuse across business.  An example would be in the legal profession, where more than 60% of law graduates in this country are women, yet the numbers decline dramatically at the top. There is an obvious disconnect here. Women outperform men in high school, in most tertiary courses and in the early years of professional life. And then … there is an exodus.

Women opt out so there’s not enough to promote

The latest Workplace Gender Equality Agency data shows many women don’t make the transition from a mid-level role to a key management position. Now it’s a fact that the prime child rearing years coincide with what is known as the ‘Golden Decade’ for career development. However, plenty of women want to combine the two. We must shift the needle here. I have two children, so I know first-hand how important it is to have an employer who is willing to promote a pregnant woman, stays in touch while you’re away and allows for flexible hours when you come back. We can all work on making our companies a great place to stay.
Women managers aren’t great.

A fellow CEO recently told me that part of the problem in his company was some people don’t want to work for a woman. For me, the really astounding thing was that the CEO wasn’t shocked by that comment. For goodness sake, this is 2015, not 1815. What that CEO could have done – what we all must do – is tackle bias when and wherever we find it.

As leaders we must move past words of support and onto action. The time for talk is past. We have to set aggressive targets for gender diversity. We have to commit to bold – not just incremental – goals, invest appropriately and measure performance.  Enough is enough. If we, as business leaders, don’t do something to address this gender inequality, then all of those well-intentioned commitments are really just vapourware. Most importantly, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. As Warren Buffet once said, “We’ve seen what can be accomplished when we use 50 per cent of our human capacity. If you visualise what 100 per cent can do, you’ll join me as an unbridled optimist.”

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