I have no idea whether Shayne Elliott is a decent human being in real life. Elliott is the chief executive of ANZ Bank, and if you think about banks, you don't automatically feel warm and fuzzy.
But on Thursday he told corporate Australia it had to start acting on gender equality with the same intensity it had approached sexual harassment. Mind you, corporate Australia needed a gigantic boot up the bum to get worked up about that, but it got there in the end thanks to some activist shareholders.
Elliott, whose own executive leadership team is balanced for gender, said corporate Australia had drawn a line around unacceptable behaviour. QBE and AMP were forced to act when it became clear senior executives had treated women terribly. He said those actions meant there was a recognition of a need for change.
"I don't want to be naive about it ... but there are some positive trends happening ... drawing lines around unacceptable behaviour in terms of companies and calling out on the need for change on other issues." he said.
"We need to have the same intensity around [gender equality]."
Elliott was speaking at the launch of the 2020 Chief Executive Women ASX200 Senior Executive Census. The news, of course, was dismal. And it is not just bad for women at the top. Those decisions about appointments affect everyone in the company.
There were 25 new chief executive appointments to ASX200 companies over the 12 months to August 1. Of those, only one was a woman (no no, not Debra Hazelton. AMP Capital is a subsidiary of an ASX-listed company, but isn't one itself) and only three in two years. A year ago there were 12 women chief executives, now there are 10. A tiny number, just one in six companies, has anything approaching gender equality, and that is only a slight improvement on 2019.
Elliott acknowledged that the recent numbers were very disappointing - "but we don't want to make this out to be too hard, because actually it isn't".
Why do these numbers matter? Aren't chief executive roles just about entrenching privilege anyhow?
The deputy director of the Women and Work research group at the University of Sydney Business School, Meraiah Foley, says there is strong evidence that shows workplace gender equity in senior leadership provides a strong strategic financial advantage to companies. Both international and Australian research reveals companies that have moved towards gender diversity have boosted productivity and profitability. The appointment of those women has a trickle-down effect.
Just as we name and shame directors who have breached the Corporations Act ... we now need to name and shame those companies which insist on having an all-male leadership team.
The problem for gender diversity right now is that women drop off the radar when it comes to economic stress. Men turn to what and who they know, women once again get excluded. And that's the real challenge we will have to face in post-COVID times.
As Foley says: "Rather than seeing workplace equity and diversity as nice to have, it should be seen as must-have."
But there is barely a company in the ASX200 that thinks it is a must-have. Women get into senior leadership from what Foley calls "line roles" in large companies. What that means is women who make it to the top have to have been engaged in the part of the company which directly makes money for the company. So, not human resources, not communications (although I would argue no company can make money without an excellent communications strategy). It is the actual widget-making (or similar). The other area which delivers chief executives is the spot of chief financial officer.
But as Foley says: "Women tend to be highly underrepresented in those line roles. Now we have the added crisis in COVID and the boost in time devoted to unpaid caregiving at home."
In other words, if we think the Chief Executive Women Census is bad in 2020, it could well be worse by 2025 because of the disruption to women's careers.
"What is going to happen to those careers? We must think about this now," she says.
MORE JENNA PRICE:
This new CEW census shows that there has been a 14 per cent increase in the percentage of companies which have no women in roles with responsibility for profit and loss in their executive leadership teams from last year to this. If you think that's some blip in the data, know that there is only one company with no men in those roles.
There is only one thing to do. Just as we name and shame directors who have breached the Corporations Act (thanks Australian Securities and Investments Commission), we now need to name and shame those companies which insist on having an all-male leadership team. I love Karen Woods' idea of league tables, which reveal the companies which lead and those which lag. Woods, the chair of mining and metals giant South 32, is not some weirdo radical. And if she is behind such a table, maybe we could get others on board. Or even on boards.
There are 14 companies with no women in leadership roles at all. Mostly you've never heard of them (except for Costa which grows and packs fruits and vegetables. and who the hell do they think cooks those fruits and vegetables?). But there are a whole bunch of health companies with just one woman in a leadership role, including Cochlear and NIB.
You can only hope that those big activist shareholders like Allan Gray, instrumental in persuading AMP to demote alleged sexual harasser Boe Pahari from the top job, get on the gender equality train too. Between the big investors and Karen Woods' name and shame files, we might get somewhere.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.