“Blunt instrument” needed to help women in leadership

by Hannah Norton23 Mar 2015
Gender inequality in the workplace needs to addressed with “more of a blunt instrument” like setting target percentages, the chief executive of one the biggest banks in New Zealand says.
“Women make up the majority of our workforce – I think we are 60 percent women, but historically they were not the leaders in the business and we are determined to address that; so we have a target of trying to get to 50 percent women in leadership roles by 2017,” Westpac chief executive - and lawyer - David McLean told NZLawyer.
“We are currently at 45 – so we’ve made huge strides. Originally, it was more like 35. So that is going very well, and we are finding amazing women leaders coming through and really making a difference to our business.’’
On Thursday McLean was joined by Federation of Maori Authorities chair Traci Houpapa and Mighty River Power general counsel Karen Clayton in a panel discussion about women’s leadership, facilitated NZ Herald business reports executive editor Fran O’Sullivan.
The event was DLA Piper New Zealand’s inaugural Leadership Alliance for Women (LAW) - a bid to address the issue of under-representation of women in leadership roles in the legal and business fraternity.
“It is no secret that women are under-represented in leadership positions across sectors in New Zealand,” said LAW chair and DLA Piper New Zealand Tracey Cross.
“The programme is about supporting and mentoring our future women leaders, learning from current leaders and collaborating for mutual success. We need to create a dialogue with the broader New Zealand business and legal communities on issues relating to women in the workforce.”
Cross said women face “unique and complex obstacles to reaching their full potential, ranging from the perception that taking parental leave rules out career progression through to not knowing how to sell their skills.”
"We need self-advocacy and collaboration to get women focused on leadership from early in their careers, to work on these obstacles and support each other and importantly, we all need to be champions of diversity.”
Women are “absolutely vital” assets to Westpac, McLean said.
He believed the barriers to women gaining leadership roles in the past could be attributed to both conscious and unconscious bias.
“Conscious bias is easy to deal with, because it is visible, and when you see it, you can deal with it. But unconscious bias is the thing that is very hard to stop. We’ve had a system of bringing in graduates and new employees at the start - and they’ve been 60 percent women – but at the end of the process it produces 65 percent male leaders, so there is something wrong the system.
“Let’s have more of a blunt instrument, and just say ‘we’ve got to set ourselves a target and we’ve got to roll that target out to staff’ - and it forces people to think that way.”
“If you say to staff, ‘we are targeting women in leadership’, then they have to go out and find good women candidates. And guess what – when they are actually encouraged to go out and do it – they find some good women candidates.”
Mighty River Power general counsel Karen Clayton saw McLean as a powerful role model in terms of gender diversity. “I think men are crucial to both leadership and gender diversity.”
She agreed barriers to women obtaining leadership roles included an element of unconscious bias.
 “I don’t think all of us recognise it; but I think once we deal with it we’ll be much more open to considering all men and women, with the best skills and abilities, rather than just pigeon-holing,” she told NZLawyer.

Research showed the pay difference between men and women doing the same jobs remained a concern, she said.
“There’s a transparency issue. We need to hold people to account, because once it is transparent I would think people would feel embarrassed by the situation - a “name and shame” sort of situation.
“But also valuing people not on gender, but valuing people for what their contribution is – that then transcends across the gender debate.”