Why aren't our current initiatives working?

In his own words - Women in Leadership

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Dr. Martin Parkinson


If men don’t talk to other men about this, it will forever remain a woman’s issue.

1. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I have been Secretary to the Treasury since April 2011. Prior to my current role, I was the first Secretary of the Department of Climate Change. I started off in Treasury in the early 1980's, spent some time at ANU doing a Masters Degree and at Princeton University doing a PhD. I spent almost 4 years at the IMF in Washington and then returned to Treasury. I am also a father to two grown children, one boy and one girl aged 30 and 26.

2. In your opinion, what are the causes of gender inequality in the workplace?

From a Treasury perspective, we recognised in the 1980’s that there were very few women in the senior ranks. A key challenge at the time was that there were very few women in the department overall and so we set about trying to recruit more women into the department. The proportion of female graduates we recruited increased markedly during the 1990s, and while it moves around from year to year approximately half of Treasury graduates have been women for quite some time. As a result, we thought that as an organisation we had essentially fixed the issue. We thought that over time, people would work their way through the system and we would see greater proportions of women coming through into the senior executive ranks.

In fact, this did not happen and it did not happen for a variety of reasons. In hindsight, we did a lot of things right during this period such as encouraging part-time work, supporting child care arrangements on site and we encouraged both men and women to continue to study. What we saw was an increase in the number of women at lower Executive levels which were the feeder groups to Senior Executive roles. However, what we were finding was that women were not staying long enough to be promoted into the more senior levels of Treasury or they were making conscious choices that curtailed their prospects of moving up the ranks.

I have spent 15 or 16 years thinking that Treasury had a problem even with all the interventions that were in place to try and deal with the problem.

At this time, Kevin Rudd won the 2007 election, I was asked to be the Secretary to the Department of Climate Change, which was just being established. As it turned out, 11 of the 13 Senior Executive Band 2 staff that were recruited into the Department were women and I was struck by the totally different dynamic amongst the leadership group because it was dominated by women. This led me to think a lot more about the gender profile in Treasury and what may have been going on.

I realised that all the interventions that had been made over time had been quite ad-hoc and had been in response to symptoms. That is, we were not getting to grips with the underlying causes.

When I came back into Treasury, we kicked off a series of discussions with senior women and in talking with them we realised that we were often putting new female graduates into outfacing roles due to their perceived better communication skills and male graduates into roles involving more technical and conceptual work. The result of this was that as women approached Senior Executive levels they were broadly not getting the same experience of demonstrating conceptual and analytical skills, skills that are valued highly in Treasury. We didn’t realise that we were inadvertently nudging people into certain career paths and rates of progression.

We ran a series of interviews and workshops under the banner of ‘Women in Treasury’ to better understand what women were facing in the workplace. The results of this process shocked me and my colleagues on the Executive Board. One of the results showed that although we had done a great job in providing flexibility and supporting part-time work in the workplace, we had not actually re-designed jobs to suit the staff. For example, meetings were being held at times when people with caring responsibilities could not attend. One young man mentioned that if he stayed around the office after the part time workers had gone home, he had a much higher chance of getting decent work because the nature of the work cycle meant that work allocation often occurred outside of regular work hours.

We had been picking people for positions who were like the people that were already in those positions and we were making assumptions about what people were able and willing to do without speaking with them. This meant that women were sometimes getting work that was perceived as being of lesser value, or being excluded from experiences which would enhance their development.

This was just one example of how systemic the problems were.

So we have started addressing the issue of the gender imbalance as a business imperative. We know we need to pick our leaders from more than half of the gene pool, while ensuring that all people of merit have a genuine opportunity to advance within the department.

3. What was done in Treasury to change the culture and to take people along on the journey?

The first thing I did raised lots of eyebrows. I made it clear that I was taking ownership of this situation. My deputies did the same. We realised that Treasury was not the organisation that we thought that we were leading and that we needed to fix the situation.

4. Did you think that the issue of gender equity is a conversation that needs to be taking place between men?

Absolutely. While it can’t be only about men, because it is men who are still predominantly running large organisations in this country, they are the ones who are making the decisions about their successors and their Executive teams. If men don’t talk to other men about this issue, it will forever remain a woman’s issue and it will be difficult to change mindsets more quickly.

5. How do you think that organisations and government departments can “future proof” the positive changes that are currently being made?

This issue is one that has worried me and therefore I have tried to ensure that the ideals of change are owned by the staff more generally. Even after I set targets, I was concerned that culturally the organisation may react unfavourably. In actual fact, it was the easiest part of our whole approach. I was helped by some of the younger men who were in the feeder group to the senior roles and intuitively, you could think that this was the group that may be most resistant to targets as it may curtail their chances of promotion. But as it turned out, they became strong advocates for gender targets and deliberately asked me provocative questions in the public fora in order to help me articulate what I was committing to. This, along with other processes that were genuinely owned by staff, allowed people to have the conversation, which has created a safe environment for discussions that are still continuing today.

These issues need to be lead by the CEO of an organisation, and supported by the leadership team. Organisational and cultural change can’t be left to the HR Department to deal with alone. That is not to say that the systemic HR issues should not be reviewed in detail, such as what we did with our performance management process, which had consistently seen women marked lower than men on some facets of their performance appraisals.

In a place like Treasury, it is important to define your problem and be transparent about the data so people can see for themselves where problems lie. Once you do, everyone will put their shoulders to the wheel to deal with the problem. We have been clear that there is no silver bullet to solve some of these cultural issues and that it will take time to deliver real change. But, I am confident that if I were to fall under the bus tomorrow, there is enough momentum, enough people throughout the department committed to change, to carry the agenda forward.

6. Do you think that there is a requirement for quotas?

I would be very reluctant to go down the route of setting quotas. I think we can get the right results with targets and transparency and holding people responsible for making progress. For our part, we report regularly to staff on progress against out targets and have taken to giving gender splits on everything from performance appraisal rankings and pay outcomes, to applicants, interviewees and successful candidates for appointment and promotion.

By being transparent, staff can hold the leadership team and themselves accountable for our success or failure.


  The views expressed in this article are the views of the author, not Ernst & Young.

Ian Narev


I am all for businesses doing good deeds, but this isn’t in the ‘good deed’ category. This is in the ‘you’ve got to get this right’ category.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got to where you are?

I grew up in New Zealand and studied English Literature and Law at Auckland University. I also completed a Masters Degree at Cambridge University in International Law.

I worked for a few years at a New Zealand law firm and then did some further post graduate study in New York before joining McKinsey & Co. At McKinsey I consulted mainly to financial institutions in New York for five years. I then relocated back to New Zealand and then to Australia with McKinsey where I remained for another four and a half years.

I began working with CBA in Strategy in 2007 and moved to head up the Business and Private Banking area in January 2009. I was appointed CEO of the CBA in July 2011 and commenced in the role in December of that year.

2. Women are still poorly represented on boards and in senior leadership positions in Australian organisations. What do you think needs to be done to drive positive and sustainable change?

There will only be positive and sustainable change if people actually buy into the business value for diversity. People have to believe that diversity on leadership teams is critical to business success. I deliberately broaden the debate because I see women in leadership as sub-set of the broader diversity discussion. For example, at CBA we are focused very much on women in leadership but also diversity of ethnicity, religion, people living with a disability, age and LGBTI which are all versions of the same issue.

Obviously the solutions are different. My view, and I think the view of many people is that getting diversity on leadership teams is critical to business success. Without that understanding, any secondary measures that you take won't be successful because you will be pushing people to do something they do not believe in.

3. Do you think that people are starting to understand the business imperative for diversity or does resistance still exist?

I think there is resistance to any change. Increasingly organisations are becoming more uncomfortable places to be in if you resist. I don't think we at CBA are necessarily near where we want to be yet, but I think the nature of the dialogue is such that we are making it less comfortable to be resistant to this kind of change. I have no doubt that you could find ongoing pockets of resistance at CBA - we can't purge that in a day or a month - but I think I am being realistic in saying that resistance is waning reasonably quickly.

I also think part of how to break down resistance is if people see outstanding women being promoted or recruited into big roles and doing exceptionally well. There are so many outstanding women around but often they can be a bit harder to find, just because at the levels you are recruiting at, they are under-represented.

4. How do you think men can be a better catalyst to change?

Men just have to get to the heart of what drives value in business. They need to articulate the business imperative in such a way for it not to be seen as a good deed, but rather it’s seen as how the business is run.

I am all for businesses doing good deeds - but this isn't in the ‘good deed’ category - this is in the ‘you’ve got to get this right’ category.

5. What do you think male leaders who are driving change within their organisation need to do to future proof these changes when the next CEO takes over?

Make diversity part of the culture because culture endures. There needs to be the right combination of urgency and also patience because cultures don't change rapidly.

It’s also about escalating the agenda to the board level so men and women running organisations can bring their board along. Making this a board level issue and not just an executive level issue is important, because boards outlive executives.

What role does unconscious bias play in shaping an organisation’s approach to gender equity?

I think this is a very important issue. At CBA we put all our top three hundred leaders through unconscious bias training. The reason we did this was that it’s an opportunity for self reflection that creates a very powerful language. One of the main barriers to progress on this issue is that people genuinely don't see indirect bias.

When I look across the organisation it is filled with decent people. So I ask myself the question, why are things not happening faster? An understanding of unconscious bias gives you the language to say, well, even decent people who all think they are doing the right thing are being held back by their biases. With the right language, we can now say to each other that maybe we’re not thinking about things in the right way because deep down we may not be open to different ways of doing things.

Unconscious bias leads to one of the biggest pitfalls for leaders - and that is recruiting in their own image. Sometimes unconsciously and sometimes consciously, decisions are being made that see men recruiting more men.

Do you think enough is being done in discussing opportunities for women re-entering the workforce after having a family? Is this a dialogue that we should be having with both men and women?

This is a very complicated question. I’ve got three girls under six and I love the CBA but I care about them a lot more - anybody in a career no matter what their gender will question what role work will play in their lives compared to their ‘other’ lives - this is an important dialogue for everybody.

This also extends beyond the debate of children. I've had many animated discussions with both women and men who have chosen not to have children who want to make room for other things in their lives. They argue this debate is too much about children - so this is absolutely a broader discussion than just women and children.

My focus is on creating an environment where personal choice is paramount and the only thing that is being judged is talent.

What can organisations and individuals do better to manage flexibility?

Firstly, we need to understand what we are trying to achieve with flexibility. If a high potential woman comes to me and asks to work three days a week so that she can look after her children the other two days – this is a no-brainer – at least philosophically. However, in a practical sense, we are still evolving in our acceptance of flexibility. If another individual wants the same arrangements because they have a love for playing the violin and want to do this two days a week, should that be seen as any less worthy of flexibility?

What complicates this discussion is when it comes time to compare the person working flexibly with their peers who have made the choice to work full time and also expect to be rewarded for the dedication they have shown in doing so.

  The views expressed in this article are the views of the author, not EY.

General Hurley


We will certainly have a woman in contention to be Chief of the Navy a decade earlier than the other two services — and this will be a monumental day when it occurs.

General David Hurley was born in Wollongong, NSW in 1953. He graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon in December 1975 into the Royal Australian Infantry Corps. General Hurley served in the Royal Australian Regiment and early in his career as the exchange officer with the 1st Battalion Irish Guards (British Army). Upon his return to Australia, General Hurley served with the 5th/7th Battalion.

At the end of 2003 General Hurley was promoted to Lieutenant General in the role of Chief of Capability Development Group followed by appointments as Chief Joint Operations Command and Vice Chief of the Defence Force. He was promoted to General and assumed his current appointment as the Chief of the Defence on 04 July 2011.

In 2010 General Hurley became a Companion of the Order of Australia for eminent service to the Australian Defence Force. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his service in Somalia during Operation SOLACE.

General Hurley holds the academic qualifications of Bachelor of Arts and Graduate Diploma in Defence Studies. He is married to Linda and has three children.

1. Women are still poorly represented in executive roles, leadership roles, and board positions right across Australia. Why do you think that has been allowed to occur and what do you think can be done about driving a positive and sustainable change?

The Department of Defence is made up of two distinct areas – the APS (Australian Public Service) and the ADF (Australian Defence Force). One of the odd things about the APS in Defence is that is has remained a very male dominated public service area for many years. Nearly all the senior women we have produced have left the department and gone on to senior positions elsewhere. We have developed quite a number of talented women but we are unable to retain them because the department has not created the opportunities for them to step up. We are now actively working to change this dynamic and we are recruiting from outside to bring women into the organisation or creating opportunities for women to participate more in senior leadership roles.

In the ADF, women have only been able to compete professionally with their male counterparts since 1985. Prior to this date, women were in the Women’s Royal Australian Army Corp or the Women’s Royal Australian Navy or Air Force with distinctly different roles, tasks and career paths. In 1985, women were allowed into the services more generally, so we have had 28 years in which we have produced a number of senior women at two star* rank and quite a few more at one star* level. Whether this is quick enough is open to debate. If you wait for this change to occur by gravity or by nature, it is not going to change quickly enough – you need active intervention for the culture to change.

The ADF is implementing the Broderick Report which sets targets by each Service for women in the organisation. We will be creating a different dynamic for women to rise in the organisation. We will certainly have a woman in contention to be Chief of the Navy ahead of the other two services and this will be a monumental day when it occurs.

2. What tangible things have you seen in terms of ADF culture and ADF performance as a consequence of the efforts made thus far?

One of the interesting things about the ADF is that it is difficult to get women into the organisation at times, but once they are in, they stay and they only leave if we cannot match their expectations around flexibility in terms of family commitments for example. If you look at women in the ADF, we have three distinct groups – there is the more experienced group of very senior women who were the first women to enter the ADF, there is the next generation of women who joined in the early 90s for whom the rules did change, but who still had to fight hard for equality. Finally, you have a younger group of women now who just demand equality. You have to have three different conversations in the organisation to meet the requirements of the three distinct groups of women. The conversations now are not only about how to best retain women in the organisation, but also about flexible work arrangements to better suit their needs and expectations.

When you consider the ADF, workforce flexibility is available for our people, but many of the arrangements are informal. We recognise this is not going to be good enough in the future. We have to intervene and create more formal flexible work arrangements. We can create greater flexibility without challenging the productivity of the organisation while we are doing so. These are the discussions that are currently occurring.

Under a new program known as Plan Suakin, Defence will offer a range of full-time, part-time and casual service options to provide permanent ADF members with greater flexibility and Reserve members with greater opportunities to achieve their career goals.

3. The Defence Forces can appear mysterious when you are on the outside looking in. Do you think that the change barriers you face in terms of women in leadership are the same as those of other organisations?

Sometimes we like to think that we are unique but many of the issues that we face are similar to those of other organisations. People who are not in the Defence Forces sometimes have a very odd view of how we function. We are probably responsible for not providing enough information about how we function. We are not all in combat in the ADF. Eighty per cent of what we do is the same as what people do outside the ADF – we work in offices, we work in warehouses, we do maintenance in garages. Our uniqueness comes out when we are on operations. The way that we recruit people, train people and educate them during their career is very similar to other businesses. We have a different culture, but many of the practices are similar.

We were recently deployed to Manus Island to help establish the accommodation for asylum seekers. The Commander in charge of the missions is a woman. When the Government tells us to do something, we will be ready to go and do it and we will choose the best people for the job, regardless of whether a man or woman is commanding the group.

4. What do you see as the business case for gender equity?

There are a number of factors to consider. We are obviously competing for the workforce of the future like everyone else. We are doing a reasonable job at the moment in attracting talent, but not as well as we should or could. As that market gets tighter and the pool of candidates gets smaller, we have to create a brand that people will be attracted to and it is imperative that we take women into consideration. This has to be an integral part of the solution for manning the ADF into the future. Otherwise we will not have the numbers that we need to be able to do business.

There is some social pressure and an expectation within the community that the ADF will increase the number of women serving in the Defence Force but there are also real benefits for the ADF in recruiting and retaining women. When we go on operations and deploy into the community, we need women to be part of that. We have found women integrate very well into those communities and if you don't have women, you are missing an important part of the solution.

Apart from attracting the right people, if we don’t have the right processes in place we won't retain our people. We cannot recruit laterally into the middle of the ADF, we need to recruit people at the bottom to train them as they work their way up. So if we cannot retain the people we have recruited, this will ultimately cost the ADF millions of dollars in lost investment and that is unsustainable.

5. How well does the business case for gender equity resonate through the organisation?

The business case resonates down to a certain level of the organisation and then it bounces back. We recruit young men from a society where they have grown up with certain views of the roles that women play and they bring these views into the organisation. There is not a perfect view about women’s roles in society and I think that the argument that the ADF alone somehow influences people’s views about women is incorrect. People bring their views into the ADF and we need to correct it or amend it and sometimes it takes a long time to move beyond their original perceptions.

We have a lot of conversations about respect and what this means day to day. Many of our biggest scandals have involved small 'boys clubs', where there is a dominant 24 year old, for example, who creates a view about women and others unfortunately follow. There are other areas of the organisation that do not buy into this culture, and individuals with this view will not last too long. Our responsibility is to ensure that we drive this change in thinking as quickly as possible.

There is not a great desire to spread good news stories about gender and the ADF in the media either – but we will continue to push this. We will get success stories out there through social media channels and through women who are part of national conferences and business network groups. It is important that we represent our case to a different audience who sees us in a different light.

6. Do you think that de-gendering society in relation to career responsibilities is an important stepping stone to facilitating a more flexible work environment?

In the ADF, we probably started this on the wrong foot. We talked about diversity very much in terms of gender instead of broader terms. The policies that we introduced are beneficial to women, but they are also beneficial to men. Flexibility and similar policies are just as important to men and apply equally to men who want to take time off to be at home or do other things. You cannot exclude men from the discussion. Our previous approach implied that what we were doing only involved women.

7. What can organisations do to advance gender equity more effectively?

We need to showcase successful women who have attained positions of leadership as role models for more junior people to show what is possible and how they can get there too. What I think that we are doing well in the organisation are things like mentoring circles – allowing people to have access to more experienced individuals that allows people to grow and develop. What we have found is that this is how many women prefer to network and gather their information.

In our organisation, we need to impart in male minds the fact that women are warriors too. Women are good fighters and that is an important message for us. Reinforcing that the door is open to women is crucial in order to develop a pool of female leadership talent. We pick our future leaders from the two star* group, so creating the right group of people at the two star*level, and ensuring that there is the right proportion of men and women, is critical.

8. What can you do to ensure that your legacy remains when you have moved on?

We are at a good spot at the moment because the senior staff have all taken this to heart. There may be some differences of opinion in how we achieve change, but everyone is in agreement regarding what is required to be done. Whoever replaces me and whoever replaces the next person, has come on this journey too. Our pipeline of female talent at the two star* and one star* level is strong, so they will be ready for leadership when the time comes. The younger women in the organisation will expect it, so if they do not receive these opportunities, they will walk.

The Air Force recently invited around 100 women to discuss issues of gender equity with senior leadership. This was a fascinating exercise. There was a lot of energy that came out of the discussion of what these women expected. We realised that we had better meet these requirements or we would lose these talented women. At a recent gathering in Cairns, about half a dozen young serving women came up to me and said “Thank you for what you are doing. We see the change and we want to keep it going".

* The Chief of the Defence Force is a four star ranked officer.
The Vice Chief of the Defence Force, the Service Chiefs and the Chief of Joint Operations are three star ranked officers.
A two star officer generally leads a Command or Division.
A one star officer is at the Director General level.

  The views expressed in this article are the views of the author, not EY.

Despite our best intentions, gender equity is constantly being de-railed by a range of largely cultural factors. Initiatives don’t work unless organisations also address: resistance to change, ingrained organisational and cultural beliefs, unconscious bias, societal norms - and sometimes sheer ignorance.

Our interviewees are frustrated that, although people are interested in and talking about gender equity, many initiatives aren’t working. They believe that, to overcome this apparently inbuilt resistance, organisations need to deal with a variety of issues:

Fear of competition and change

Asked why gender equity initiatives are being resisted, David Gonski doesn’t mince his words: “Firstly, I think there are some men who fear having to compete with women. I think these men are in the minority, but they do exist. Secondly, I think it is easier for everyone to go along with the norms of today than it is to challenge them.”

Simon Longstaff believes it’s also down to ignorance: “The older generation doesn’t appreciate the capacity of the women coming through.” He says organisational culture is often based on bad habits: “People are used to having a certain kind of person succeed. If you challenge the whole basis on which the role is secured then that’s threatening, so people resist.”

Men don’t realise how privileged they are

There’s a general consensus that most men don’t realise the privileged position they are in - that men have a sense of entitlement.

Men rationalise their privilege without realising they validate every belief through prejudice.
Dr Simon Longstaff Executive Director, St James Ethics Centre

Telstra CEO, David Thodey says the ‘Australian macho culture’ is partly to blame. The Chief of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) General David Hurley agrees: “We recruit men and boys who have grown up with certain views of the roles that women play. Sometimes it takes a long time to move people beyond these original perceptions. Many of our biggest scandals have involved small boys clubs, where there is a dominant 24 year old who creates a view about women that others will, unfortunately, follow.”

Such cases are isolated and the ADF is working hard to change the thinking that causes them: “Individuals with this view will not last too long. Our responsibility is to ensure that we drive this change as quickly as possible. We have a lot of conversations about respect and what this means.”

People genuinely don’t think the problem exists

Ian Narev, the Commonwealth Bank’s CEO believes an organisation’s failure to address gender equity often comes down to unconscious bias. “It’s one of the main barriers to progress on this issue. Unconscious bias leads to one of the biggest pitfalls for leaders: recruiting in their own image. Sometimes unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, decisions are being made that see men recruiting more men.”

A lot of people don’t think unconscious bias is an issue for them. I think it’s an issue for everyone in every company. You have to be continually vigilant and make sure it’s not a problem in your business.
Alan Joyce CEO, Qantas

Dr Martin Parkinson, Secretary to the Department of Treasury, recalls instances of unconscious bias at work in Treasury: “We had been picking people for positions who were like the people that were already in those positions. We were making assumptions about what people were able and willing to do, without speaking with them. This meant that, unintentionally, women were sometimes getting work that was perceived as being of lesser value, or being excluded from experiences that would enhance their development.”

No consequences for missing gender targets

David Thodey says it’s one thing to set targets, but quite another to act on them. He admits to questioning his own actions: “When I’m reviewing performance, people may do well in a business sense, but fail to meet their gender targets. Do I rate them down as much as I should?”

There’s no silver bullet. Nothing will change until you have an authentic conversation - until it touches you in some way.
David Thodey CEO, Telstra

Initiatives don’t work in isolation

Our interviewees believe organisations often get a number of gender equity initiatives in place, but don’t address the cultural change required for them to work. “There’s not a lot of tolerance for professionals to job share or take up other flexibility options in senior management positions. We expect people to be available 24/7,” says David Gonski.

Martin Parkinson speaks from experience: “When half of Treasury graduates were women, we thought we had fixed the issue. We thought that, over time, we would see greater proportions of women coming through into the senior executive ranks. In fact, this did not happen.”

“In hindsight, we did a lot of things right. We encouraged part-time work, supported child care arrangements on site and encouraged both men and women to continue to study - and we did increase the number of women at lower executive levels.”

However, women still didn’t make it into the senior ranks.

Mystified, the department ran interviews and workshops to understand what was holding women back.

“The results shocked me and my colleagues on the Executive Board. They showed that, although we had done a great job in providing flexibility and supporting part-time work, we had not actually re-designed jobs to suit the staff. For example, meetings were being held at times when people with caring responsibilities could not attend, and the work cycle tended to allocate work after hours. One young man mentioned that if he stayed back after the part-time workers had gone home, he had a much higher chance of getting decent work.”

“I realised that all the interventions had been quite ad-hoc - in response to symptoms. We were not getting to grips with the underlying causes.”

In other words, the initiatives failed because the system was still set up to discriminate against people who took advantage of flexibility.