Jennifer Westacott - Robbie Buck, ABC 702 Breakfast

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Robbie Buck, ABC 702 Breakfast 
Jennifer Westacott
9 November 2017
Gender equality and workplace diversity

Robbie Buck: The quest to see more women in leading roles in Australian companies could come down to ten basic strategies. That's according to research by the Business Council of Australia along with McKinsey & Company. They include things as basic as providing role models to demonstrate a firm's commitment to inclusion to challenging traditional views on recruitment. Jennifer Westacott is the CEO of the Business Council of Australia. Good morning.

Jennifer Westacott, Business Council chief executive: Good morning.

Robbie: Okay, take us through the research. What did you find?

Jennifer: We found a few things that were very interesting. So we want to get behind, sort of, the statistics and say what's actually working in companies? A couple of things we found, then I will go into the ten things. The first is that flexible working arrangements were the absolute determinant of whether women could get into senior leadership roles and that the companies who use their imagination about how people could work from home, how they could work differently, made a huge difference.

Then there were these ten actions which we can come back to. And, the other thing we found is that organisations tailored things to the kind of organisation they were. The kind of operating hours. The kind of business model. The kind of customer service orientation. That's kind of how they worked through, 'how do we get women into more senior roles?'. Then there were these ten things which we can talk about. But, you know, this is all about leadership and this is about, kind of, practical things and what we did find which was interesting is that having a policy about women in leadership was, you know, important but didn't really make a difference. What made a difference was doing some quite specific things on the ground.

Robbie: Okay, we'll get to the ten recommendations in a moment. Let's hear the pitch for more women though in top roles. I know there's plenty of research which shows that companies that have better gender diversity tend to do better. That, you know, there's actually a lot of strong argument, it's not just a feel good argument.

Jennifer: Absolutely. This has got nothing to do with feel good as you rightly say. I mean, this is about what's right for the company. This is about what is right for business. Frankly, it's about what should be right for government. I mean, women are 50% of the population. This is about getting creative people. This is about getting a broad representation. This is about reflecting the community. This is about spreading the talent. This is about getting the best people for the job. If you got, you know, half of the population excluded, well how can you possibly have the best people for the job? But, the other thing is that this is a long, long road that we are on here. We are not making as much progress as I would like to see us making as companies. And so, one of the reasons we did this report was to say, how do we accelerate that progress? How do we get further ahead? Because this is a business imperative. You know, companies that have [inaudible] cultures, have old cultures, old ways of thinking, who don't kind of have the best people in the job, who don't reflect the population, they will not keep up with what's happening in the world.

Robbie: Okay, Jennifer Westacott is with us this morning. She's the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia and they have been digging in to their research and come up with these ten recommendations. Give us a few of these suggestions that you have for companies.

Jennifer: Yes very interesting. So, obviously, this kind of whole question of flexible working arrangements but not just saying, look you can come in later or whatever but really quite creative or imaginative ways, people working from home. You know, the people kind of work through and have an accountability for that. It's one thing to say that they will be working from home but you have got to have a proper accountability arrangement. What am I going to do while I'm doing that? The other stuff was around building a kind of a strong business case. Making it part of the business case as opposed to kind of making it a compliance issue. Let's build this into the way we run the business. The other one that's interesting is the role model stuff. So, chief executives who say to people instead of 'look I'm heading off, I've got an important meeting to go to' they say 'I'm going to pick up the kids from sport'. Interestingly, Andrew MacKenzie, the chief executive of BHP, last week talked about as he becomes more senior he needs to work less hours because he's got to have more thinking time, he needs to do a lot of international calls and he was very open about that.

Robbie: He was also bucking that trend you hear from a lot of business executives, I only need to sleep four hours a night because my brain is so sharp. Well actually, if you want your brain to be as sharp as possible you need to get your sleep.

Jennifer: Absolutely and I thought it was really terrific when Andrew came out and said that last week, I thought there's a role model. And so this role modelling stuff was really important.

The other thing was around sponsoring women, actively pushing people through the pipeline, making sure that they've got the capability, you know, making sure that the kind of way recruitment is done is done better.

Making sure there are women on the panel. Making sure there are independent people on the panel, making sure that the attributes, if you will, of leadership positions are properly articulated and measuring people against them rather than, sort of, tapping people on the shoulder. Developing those capabilities, this is a really important point because I always make this point and people kind of say well "why do you feel so strongly about this?"

You have got to give people the money and the operational roles, you cannot run companies if you don't understand the operations and you don't understand the money.

So where people have actually made sure that as they're pushing women through the pipeline they are giving them that exposure to running a business and running the money, that is actually going to make them a) more eligible but b) crucially, more successful in leadership roles. So they're some of the things.

Robbie: Okay.

Jennifer: And then there are case studies of some of the companies. And what's really great is the kind of focus this has got in Australian companies, the leadership we see from all levels in business. We've got to get this right, this is absolutely fundamental, that we, as part of a progressive society and a society that wants to be successful, get this right. I was at a conference on the weekend with a lot of German businesses, I mean they are so progressive on these things.

Robbie: What kind of reception do you get though? I mean these plans, you're putting them to companies as we know with the statistics, they are primarily the boards are male. They've perhaps had some improvement in the past 10 or 20 years but there is still a majority there. Do you get the reception that you're hoping for with these sorts of suggestions?

Jennifer: From the bulk of big companies absolutely, because they've all got a very strong commitment to do something about this. Are they making enough progress? No they're not, but they know that.

You know, there aren't many chief executives I talk to who say "look, we're not making enough progress but you know we've got other things to do", they say "we're not making enough progress and we've got to do something about this." What they like is sort of the practical side of this, where they can see some of the companies, they can see "that's kind of like what I'm doing, yep there's a great example of what they've done, okay let’s see whether that's going to work in our company".

This is like a recipe where you've got to kind of pick and choose things based on what's going to work for your company. But you know, Australian companies, certainly the ones I work with, the top companies, they have very strong commitments here because they know this is fundamental to their business.

Robbie: Yeah, okay.

Jennifer: They know they're not making enough progress but they also know this is a process where you've got to build a pipeline of capable, strong women so that they can do the job successfully and that it's going to take time and you’ve got to get it right.

Robbie: Yeah, they've probably seen the data at the end of it as well. Hey Jennifer, we'll see if maybe a few calls come in this morning 1300 222 702, if you've been listening to the pitch from the Business Council of Australia and you work in companies do you see it as a realistic approach, and as something that's going to be taken up too? Jennifer, thanks so much for your time this morning.

Jennifer: You're welcome, thanks a lot.

Robbie: The CEO of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott. Interested to hear your thoughts too, 1300 222 702.

You can read the full Women in Leadership Report HERE.