Women still assessed differently and need to be 'normalised' in the C-Suite: An interview with Diane Smith-Gander | Women's Agenda

Women still assessed differently and need to be ‘normalised’ in the C-Suite: An interview with Diane Smith-Gander

Former Chief Executive Women President Diane Smith-Gander: “I’m still quite frustrated that women are seen as standard bearers for their entire sex,

The Australian business sector has a big C suite gender problem according to Diane Smith-Gander, director and until last month the president of membership group Chief Executive Women. 

There were just 3 new women CEOs appointed during 2015 and a tiny cohort of ten in the ASX200, according to this week’s PwC’s The CEO Succession report, while throwing the net to include a range of public and private businesses reveals there were 15.4 per cent women in CEO roles based on Workplace Gender Equality Agency data.

After two years running a group made up of 400 of Australia’s most senior female leaders, Smith-Gander said women at still facing very different assessments of their performance compared to their male peers.

“I’m still quite frustrated that women are seen as standard bearers for their entire sex,” she said. An example was the recent scrutiny of Deborah Thomas, the CEO of Dreamworld owner Ardent Leisure, following the tragic accidents there.

“If Ardent Leisure has a crisis it becomes a question not of how does Ardent Leisure deal with that crisis but how did the woman running it handle the crisis.”

Compare that, she says, to the way BHP CEO Andrew MacKenzie was portrayed while handling the Samarco mine crisis in Brazil last year, with the coverage of his efforts more measured and mostly showing him as concerned and strong.

Getting more women into senior roles is a key to normalising them as leaders, but their presence also acts as role models for women throughout organisations, says Smith-Gander.

While she understands that CEW has been seen as an elitist group its mission actually has a broad remit. More women at the top means more women are appointed in an organisation – a hypothesis that has been proven by many studies, she adds.  

 “We want there to be more women like us so what we are trying to do is take an elite group of women like us and make it less elite. If women look up in an organisation and see no women like them, then they are going to make the very logical conclusion that they have less chance in this organisation and we want to blow that out of the water.”

While at the helm of CEW she was certainly more vocal then her predecessors and said high points included research on flexibility and getting some of Australia’s top male leaders around the table to examine what is meant by ‘merit’. 

Support for the CEW agenda from a group of Australia’s most powerful corporate and public sector male leaders – including Shane Elliot, CEO of ANZ and Martin Parkinson, Secretary of Prime Minister & Cabinet – was welcome she said. 

Asked if she had discussed the challenges for women in the workplace with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who famously calls himself a feminist, Smith Gander admitted she had not, although overtures were made by CEW. 

“That’s been a major disappointment to me,” she says. “He never had any contact with CEW or me as President. And Michaelia Cash (Minister for Women) has been incredibly supportive.”

It was also clear that a number of cultural markers were still in need of a major overhaul, including the current lack of women being recognised in the Australia Day honours and awards. That was also on her agenda when taking on the job, which included moving CEW into a more public advocacy role. 

“My goal was to have CEW as the major advocacy voice in the equity for women and leadership space and build a conversation with other groups, particularly the Male Champions of Change,” she explains.  

The MCC – a group formed in 2011 by former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick to get more women into leadership – were getting plenty of air time when Smith-Gander became president in 2014 and she thought it would be a much stronger message if a women’s group added to that effort.  

The 2016 CEW/MCC report and discussion on the concept of merit in appointments and promotions was an example of what the association produced. 

 “It took such a long time to get people to understand that experience as a proxy for future performance was an inherently lazy way of insuring performance of your employees in an organisation. Sometimes you have to bring in people (with diverse backgrounds) in a different way.” 

New CEW president, former BlueScope Steel executive and Reserve Bank director Kathryn Fagg, will do a fantastic job, Smith-Gander says. Although the Reserve Bank role means Fagg cannot comment on economic policy, that just means other CEW members will – and that means more voices and change which was a good thing. 

The economic and workforce participation implications of childcare policy were another part of Smith-Gander’s agenda. In 2015 she said it was ‘disappointing’ when the government described women accessing the current national paid parenting leave scheme and employer leave as double dipping.

“On childcare we wanted it to be seen that we weren’t cheer leaders for any time someone would give a crumb off the table for women, and wanted to be very clear that anything as emotive…as ‘double dipping’ was unhelpful.

Asked where there has been progress for women more broadly she sees a move starting to emerge which shifts this entire topic from being a women’s agenda to a family agenda.

“It’s that understanding that men access flexibility less in organisations and that will disadvantage men in the new economy, and the signs of recent commentary on why aren’t services work and jobs seen as being as valuable as making widgets?” 

The next stage for Smith-Gander is a full schedule as a director at Wesfarmers, AGL, Henry Davis York and several not-for-profits.     

 “I’m not very happy with the status quo so if something is going to be the same it doesn’t attract me. I’m looking for change and that will keep me busy.” 

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