Catherine Fox: Gender targets promote poaching, with women reaping the benefits | Women's Agenda

Catherine Fox: Gender targets promote poaching, with women reaping the benefits

Spooked by the mere discussion on legislated quotas for women in business, many large organisations have been talking up gender targets for women in their ranks.

Although there is more rhetoric than reality in many cases, the companies which have formally introduced targets are finding the effects haven’t all been as expected.

Classic short-termism, for example, has seen a lively market in poaching experienced women executives to meet targets. No-one much wants to talk about it, of course, but anecdotally the number of women being approached about jumping ship to a rival has been on the increase.

Senior women are in demand and the companies that have a good reputation are magnets for them, according to Kate O’Reilly, who runs Optimiss, a firm which helps large organisations increase the number of women in their ranks. On the other hand, this shift has left a number of large businesses struggling with retention issues, including professional services firms.

“I’ve seen the big law firms losing many of their senior women who are going into industry,” she says.

Who can blame these women for making a move? After decades of being disadvantaged and overlooked because they were female, all of a sudden their gender has become a plus.

And let’s be clear – ensuring more women get considered for promotion or recruitment is about supporting not compromising the merit principle. In fact, in many cases the women who make it into senior roles in Australian companies have had to outperform their male peers to survive.

So while a robust senior women’s job market may not be the key aim of targets, the new liquidity is a real advantage, and a chance for some negotiating leeway for experienced women.

At the same time organisations watching the exodus while facing tight targets are being forced to up their game. This means working out the best way to address systemic problems so a healthy pipeline of women into higher ranks is established. That’s exactly what targets are designed to tackle.

Another much uglier repercussion from introducing targets is the backlash from some men who believe they are being unfairly disadvantaged. It’s a live but informal issue in many workplaces.

While these attitudes can be difficult to identify and address, this is another opportunity to clearly articulate what diversity programs are all about. In fact, the best way to tackle the male complaints is up front, according to WGEA director Helen Conway.

“The male backlash should be outed. It’s about (protecting) self-interest … they have to realise that what they are saying is they don’t think it’s fair people get ahead on merit.”

WGEA has recently launched a toolkit to help organisations set achievable and transparent targets in a bid to persuade those who complain it’s ‘too hard’. Telstra, TNT, Qantas and some of the big banks have all come on board, but Conway says a range of other companies are reluctant to publicly commit to targets.

Without transparency and accountability targets are much less likely to succeed, Conway points out.

It’s worth remembering that the flurry of activity in recent years which saw a boost in the number of women appointed to boards has slowed significantly. This is unlikely to happen if companies really commit to targets, provide incentives to business unit managers, measure and publicly report on progress.

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