If only more of the corporate sector would take the advice of Kevin O'Leary, one of the investors in the US version of Shark Tank. Storage squillionaire O'Leary says the companies which have brought him the biggest return on investment have one thing in common - they are run by women.
And if you looked at the jobs and skills summit last week, you'd reckon women run the world, or at least Australia. More women than men in nearly every niche/subset/genre. A glorious sight and what looked like an indication of world domination by the better, smarter and more flexible sex.
Unfortunately, the results are now in and reality sucks. This week Chief Executive Women released its senior executive census, which tracks gender equality in Australia in the corporate sector. There isn't any. In a culture filled with big swinging dicks, there is no room for women at the top tables (I'd make some vulgar comment about female reproductive organs but I've yet to hear a woman brandish them as some badge of honour. Or even a vag of honour). The corporate sector is truly dreadful. Worse than. And it's ignoring all pressures to achieve gender equality. The blokes are closing their eyes, sticking fingers in their ears and singing, la la la. CEW says progress on women's leadership is going backwards - and predicts it will take 100 years for women to even get to 40 per cent of all CEO positions on the ASX300, Australia's top publicly listed companies. More ASX300 companies have no women in their executive leadership teams compared to this time last year. There are still just 18 women CEOs because apparently men do such a brilliant job of leading companies. Alan Joyce of Qantas, please take a bow.
In comparison, the Australian Public Service is killing it. The overarching number for women in senior executive positions is 52 per cent. I mean, it isn't evenly divided at Band Three (in fact, that needs a shakeup). Nor even at Band Two. But now women dominate Band One, the rest will come. And it's all happening a lot earlier than the Founding Mothers predicted.
In the early 90s, a bunch of women in the public service founded the Finance Women's Network. Jan Mason, former department deputy secretary and former head of Defence Housing, was one of them. It was some years after Helen Williams was appointed to run the Department of Education, the first time a woman had been appointed at that level but gender equality had not followed. While some of the blokes were on board, still others asked Mason and her colleagues in the network why there wasn't a men's network. Mason, now retired, developed two responses. One, "The entire SES is a men's network." Or "If you'd like to start one, we can give you a few tips."
In 2001, quotas were set. And as a result: "Change gradually happened as more women moved into middle management," says Mason.
Nevertheless, she and her colleagues persisted. And back then, when did they predict gender equality would be achieved? 2026.
She's very pleased she was wrong and it happened a bit earlier up to the branch manager level but says there is still some way to go at deputy secretary level.
What can be done to shake up the corporate sector? There is only one thing to do and that is to follow the money. Can governments play a role? Sure. Stop spending money with men. Start spending money with companies who value gender equality. In fact, let's go for the double whammy. You get government business in exchange for ensuring your company has net zero emissions and zero gender imbalance. The University of Melbourne's Leah Ruppanner recommends the government set procurement targets.
And copy the public service. Set quotas or targets. Follow those quotas or targets. Surely men in the corporate sector know how to read a balance sheet and fix the imbalance. Do I really need to tell business it has a triple bottom line and must serve not just its shareholders, but also its employees and the community? I'd love a system where if a company didn't maintain its social licence it would lose its operating licence. Way too much socialism there. Which reminds me. Let's get some of these companies thoroughly unionised.
The Commonwealth Public Service Union worked hard in its advocacy for workplace and industrial reforms to better support women's participation in the workplace and address gender equity - and that matters because not everyone is in the senior executive. The CPSU advocated for paid parental leave, flexible work arrangements, and better and stronger protections for women at work. It also runs its longitudinal survey What Women Want, to see what the key issues are.
But as CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly says, there are still many front-line roles in the public service, Centrelink, NDIA, where it is tough for women to access the kind of flexibility their more senior sisters have.
The world of work is still putting up barriers for women and blaming women when things go wrong. I fear that will also be true for PM&C deputy secretary Stephanie Foster who, by now, should be secretary of a department (and has done, I hear, a good job of listening to women during the Foster Review and during the current overhaul of arrangements for staffers). I keep hearing that she will be made to carry the can for Morrison's mysterious multiple ministries.
God knows whether she is humble in real life but I asked her if she still wanted to lead a department. She said yes but that her legacy mattered more.
"I want to know that when I leave [the public service] I am leaving behind an organisation that is stronger and where women feel supported. My value is what I leave behind."
And then she could head over to Qantas and get it sorted.
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.