Watermark Lunch: Women in Senior Executive Positions

Watermark Search International (Watermark) and The Business Council of Australia (BCA).

Diversity Lunch 2

Is Corporate Australia doing enough to ensure that women get a fair go at the executive table? Are the search and recruiting firms doing their bit to ensure that women are well represented in their long and short lists? Is this an issue worth focussing on? (Some are, some are and yes).

In 2013 the BCA commissioned a report titled “Increasing the Number of Women in Senior Executive Positions: Improving Recruitment, Selection and Retention Practices”. Both Jennifer Westacott, the CEO of the BCA, and Meredith Hellicar, who prepared the report for the BCA, shared their perspectives with an audience of some 100 guests at our recent lunch.

It is probably worth covering off the question of “Is this an issue worth focussing on?” The report makes the point that “after decades of effort, only 10.1 percent of key executives in ASX 200 companies are female”. Purely from the issue of gender equality this has to be an issue worth focussing on.  I for one would like to think that as my daughters grow up they have an equal chance of success in a corporate role as their male counterparts; too much to ask? If as a shareholder one needs a reason more closely aligned to returns on investment, then it is worth considering the point made in the introduction of the report that “Given talent is randomly distributed across both genders, there is a high probability that at least half of the talented workforce will be women, so to take 90 percent of company leadership from just 50 per cent of the talent pool – males – simply does not make sense”. Add to this reports from Goldman Sachs JBWere, Credit Suisse Research Institute, Deloitte/Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission and McKinsey, to name but a few, drawing the correlation between increased diversity and increased business performance and the case is even more compelling. I hope you agree the issue is worth focussing on.

The BCA is focussed on creating conversations, and outcomes around the ‘Third Wave of change’ with regard to women in executive positions. This third wave is about developing “cultures within companies that will attract and support the women working in them”.  As with most issues concerning corporate culture, the signals from the top of the organisation are the ones that set the prevailing culture. One could argue that the Board is one layer removed from impacting on the company’s culture and, to some extent that could be true, but a Board and a CEO aligned around gender equality is so much more powerful than just, for instance, the CEO being an advocate. We would suggest that the impetus for change can come from either party, Executive or Non-Executive, but a Board, which has gender equality on the agenda every meeting, is in a commanding position to create an environment for change and then, just as importantly, sustain it. Equally the report makes the point “The recommendations in this report will not secure increased numbers of women in senior roles…, without the personal intervention of the CEO”. Change starts at the top, is re-enforced from the top and sustained from the top; there is zero opportunity to delegate this issue. The report makes the point that “the most important support for the success of women in organisations is an inclusive culture that appreciates and seeks diversity”.  So is Corporate Australia doing enough to create the culture that allows them to appoint and retain female executives into their ranks? Watermark is fortunate to work with a range of clients who have made considerable progress in this area and this is reflected in their hiring of women into senior roles.

So what part does the executive recruiter play in all of this? I think we would say that we respond to the demands of our clients and are trying to ensure the best fit with our client’s brief. Having said that, there is more to it than that. We should be presenting the best candidates to fill our client’s brief…not just the ones that can be successful in the role. If that range of candidates does not include a range of female executives or Non-Executive Directors then we have to hold our hand up and say “we are not doing our job properly”. The role of the executive search professional should be one, as suggested in the report, of an advisor…not a transactor. As an advisor we need to not only be making sure females are well represented in any long or short list but also, where needed, working with the client to ensure they appreciate the positive impact of diversity within business. Indeed clients would benefit from recognising that diversity is not just about females but also covers, age, ethnicity, skills diversity and disability amongst other things. In 2014 37% of Watermark’s successful candidates were women. Can we do even better? Probably and we will continue to ensure that we are providing our clients with long and short lists that reflect the diversity of talent that is out there.

With Jennifer having spoken to the BCA’s reasons for commissioning the report and the prevailing corporate environment and Meredith talking in some detail about the report and the recommendations, the floor was thrown open for questions. The questions from the floor demonstrated a very high level of engagement from those present and the 20 minutes or so for questions was probably about 30 minutes too short! The issue of females in executive roles was clearly an issue that people saw as relevant, frustrating and something that needs continued focus. There were a lot of Chairs, NEDs, CEOs, MDs and Managing Partners in the room and we hope that this lunch session contributed a little impetus to their thinking about females in executive roles.

Diversity Lunch 1

You can download and read the full report “Increasing the Number of Women in Senior Executive Positions” from the BCA website by clicking on this link: http://www.bca.com.au/publications/increasing-the-number-of-women-in-senior-executive-positions