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Home | All | When Leading Women Meet – The Merit Panel

When Leading Women Meet – The Merit Panel

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21 November 2016

Moderator: Caroline Overington, associate editor, The Australian

Panel: Kirstin Ferguson, non-executive director; Karen Stocks, managing director, Twitter Australia; and Pip Marlow, managing director, Microsoft Australia.

Caroline Overington: Do we have a merit-based system?

Pip Marlow: In many of our industries and certainly in IT, the majority of employees are men and the higher up you go, the higher the percentage of men. In those environments the norms have been created by men. So when you start to say, what does merit look like where the norm is created by a man and set by a man, I think we have a challenge. How do you then create different views of merit? Your idea of what’s worthy and my idea of worthy are very different. I believe that the current system is flawed. There are just as many smart women out there as smart men and the statistics show that we’re missing out on some great talent to help drive businesses.

Karen Stocks: The challenges that I see are twofold. First, you need to define what merit is and you need to be very explicit. The second one is asking who’s making those decisions and who’s judging.

Kirstin Ferguson: I think merit is a concept that in an egalitarian country like Australia, we want to believe in and we want it to work for us because it’s easy and comfortable to say that everyone has achieved on merit. When I started my career, I firmly believed that if you worked hard and got yourself educated and you sought out opportunities, then you would achieve the same as someone alongside you, whether they were male or female. But that clearly is not the case. There is some interesting research out of MIT on companies that call themselves meritocracies but which actually provide greater benefits to men over equally qualified women because they’ve got blinkers on. So I think we need to challenge how helpful being a meritocracy actually is as a country and as a business because it’s not giving us the sustainable factors for success we actually need and want. We’re not a diverse group and whether that is based on gender, or ethnicity, or age, basically merit is shorthand for qualities that we value but those qualities are norms that we’ve grown up with and look like us. So we need to understand that view.

Caroline: Do you believe organisations you run will promote on merit?

Pip: We all want to believe that we got here because we earned our place and we worked hard for it. I hold a pay-it-forward point of view that says it’s so important, as a woman, not to pull the ladder up behind you but to throw down a tonne of ropes and help other women. When I first got this job, I used to get asked a question a lot: “Pip, as a female how did you do this?” I watched other men come into roles and I never saw that question asked of them. At the start it annoyed me. I thought why are you asking me this question? You’re not asking it of men. But actually over time, I changed my perspective because it’s hard to be what you can’t see. So I recognise there is a responsibility that comes when you are breaking the glass ceiling and that means you’ve got to tell your story. You’ve got to show people how you can have strategies that help you break through. We have a responsibility because the glass ceiling’s double glazed. We’ve got to break it (again) once we’ve got through it and we’ve got to break it from the top and open that up to a lot of other women. So telling those stories, doing things like this, is really important, as well as using our positions to drive organisational change.

Karen: There are some things we can do from an organisational perspective, around unconscious bias. It’s around making sure salaries are equal, that we’ve got very robust processes internally around hiring and promotion. And I think there’s a hundred micro moments every single day that I find beneficial if I call them out. So I’ll see a sales deck and I’ll look through it and there’s not one picture of a female. So I’ll go, “Why isn’t there a picture of a female in there?” It’s not intentional. No one’s going — I’m going to exclude females. But until they stop, check and have a look, it’s not in there. So there are all those micro moments when I ask, “How are you reflecting the reality of people around you? How are you role modelling this? How are you thinking about that?”

Kirstin: I think once you switch on your awareness to gender equality there’s nothing you can un-see. I think we have an obligation to help other women but we also have to help men see things they haven’t seen. (One example was that) I was recently invited to an event and I was the only woman in the room … it’s pretty unacceptable these days, and I formed a view about this company, and I thought, there is no way this is an innovative, disruptive, forward looking company.

Caroline: I’m wondering where each of you stand on quotas?

Kirstin: I had always railed against quotas and believed merit was going to see everyone through: I didn’t understand that not everyone’s on an equal playing field. I think quotas are a way of overcoming structural challenges to ensure that equally well-qualified women are placed in roles as compared to men. The data shows it’s not happening through goodwill alone.

Karen: I was in exactly the same place. The hairs on the back of my neck would stand up thinking about quotas (but then) you read these studies (that suggest) we will not see equality before 2030. We need to change the trajectory because it’s not going to get us to where we need to be.

Pip: Too often the discussion on quotas is followed by the suggestion that we will have to drop the bar. Quotas don’t mean we have to do that. It comes back to, what do you reward? What do you recognise? Too often we have this conversation about the right person for the job. Well maybe I want the right team for the task. We have to reframe what talent looks like in the 21st century. We have to use a different lever. We’ve seen it used to drive equal pay, for a right to vote, to end slavery. All these things that are just morally right have required intervention to drive change.

Caroline: What about managing perceptions that people have not been selected on merit?

Pip: I think the first thing is making sure the people in your organisation understand why diversity exists beyond just the moral compass. You don’t have to look very far to find the research that talks about diverse teams driving better business performance.

Kirstin: What I do find remarkable is you never hear the comment — even when 95 per cent of CEOs are men — that he got the role because he’s a male. There is no question about whether or not they were qualified, or the right person for the job. It’s a challenge that the word “quota” comes with this depiction of unfairness or a lack of justice in the process. I am now at a point where I would argue that this is merely a mechanism to try to even up the scales.

Caroline: How do we change a culture where a woman will look at a job and unless she thinks she already knows about 90 per cent of it, she won’t apply for it?

Pip: I have been guilty of that and I have been lucky to have great managers and mentors who have really believed in me and have encouraged me to push myself out of my comfort zone. You say, okay let’s talk about how you’re assessing yourself. Have the conversation, get exploratory, get curious with those women and I think great things can come from that. It’s when you just leave it and say, okay females are like that and men are like that — that actually perpetuates those things. My experience is that women put humility over sharing their strengths, and that’s not right or wrong, it’s just a difference in style. A piece of advice I always give men and women is, let’s be clear about what you want and then make sure the right people know what your aspirations are.

Kirstin: It doesn’t matter what position you get to or what seniority you have, you’re always questioning. Am I suited? Am I the right person? But you can train yourself to recognise what’s going on and ignore it and seize the opportunity because your history tells you that you’ve got no reason to think you can’t achieve it. My approach has always been to role model that and to be quite open with people about the impostor syndrome. And then to try to help women and men, men to a lesser degree but I think they also feel it. There’s some really great research about how millennials now think about diversity. It’s quite different to us. They look at cognitive diversity as a means to a business outcome whereas traditionally we’ve looked at diversity through a moral lens. And so then it’s thinking about, did you grow up in a different part of the country, have you got a different perspective? Rather than the traditional characteristics of race, gender and age. I am excited for the future and I think millennials may teach us different ways to be diverse.

Pip: It is such a great opportunity with the new technologies out there. No one has the domain expertise. You cannot look at your traditional bench and go, wow, you know how to organise in this world. You know what the customer needs. You know how technologies change things. You actually have to look at people who are diverse in their thinking and just tackle and solve problems. Most of what we do now is not around hey, who’s got the expertise who we can hire? But who can we bring into a room every single day and tackle problems we didn’t know existed yesterday?

Caroline: Some of the big companies in Silicon Valley are very heavily weighted towards white men. What are you doing to try to break that down?

Karen: I am very conscious of it when it comes to engineering. At the tech companies there are the engineers, who are mostly white males, then everyone else, who are very diverse.

We put in a lot of processes to make individual managers accountable for who they hire when it comes to diversity. So instead of saying we want to move female participation from 30 to 50 per cent as a company goal we would go to each hiring manager and say that you need to move from 30 to 50. So we drive that accountability down. Where are you hiring from? Do you have diversification in the interview panels? When people come in and do tours, are you diversifying who they’re talking to? The question I would ask (if there are no female candidates) is who is the pool? Who did you interview? If you just interviewed 10 white males and you’ve come up with a white male, that’s a problem. But if you have interviewed a massive range of diverse candidates and you show me through that process (that is different).

Pip: So I think it’s really important to mirror the market you serve and all our customers are not white males. There are enough stories to show when you don’t have diversity in product design, you can have challenges. I read a great article about the invention of the airbag — how when they invented the airbag, it was 100 per cent a male test team, and there were some challenges in how it worked for women and children. You can’t wait for diversity to happen. You have to get ahead of it. So we do succession planning. Even when there’s somebody sitting in a job, it is my expectation that they have pipelines a diverse selection of candidates so that when that role comes open I don’t accept that there is not a diverse candidate. So if you don’t plan for it, then you’re going to fish in the same pond and get what you’ve always got.

Caroline: What do we do about the fact that the majority of women will still need some years out of the workforce because of children?

Pip: We’ve got to engage men in this part of the debate around choices. And you have to know that you have choices. The answer can’t be that it’s my role to do that. As a family we’ve got to make choices and in fact obviously, in my case my husband is the primary carer. I always laugh when somebody says, oh, your husband’s so good, he turned up at the school. I’m like, are you saying that to the mums who turned up today? We have to celebrate guys who are making that decision, but we also have to celebrate women who make those decisions.

Karen: I’m in a very similar position to Pip with my husband being a primary carer. There’s still this stigma around men taking paternity leave. So we do a lot of work around encouraging and celebrating men taking paternity leave. We’ve got very generous policies for both females and males and we push them to take it. (But you also need to manage the process) so we talk about it openly as a team to understand where people on leave will come back into the organisation, when people will leave, what happens to their roles, so that everyone’s on the same page.

Kirstin: Our organisations need to have structures and processes in place to adapt to everyone’s circumstances because we’re all different. So in my case my husband has a busy executive career and we’ve always raised our two children completely equally. There was never an expectation that I had to do pick ups. Someone had to pick them up, so he would do it. The number of times when I travel for work and I’m asked, “Who’s looking after your children?” I’d be a millionaire if I took a dollar every time I was asked that question.

Caroline: When it’s a man travelling with a baby they say, “Where’s the mother?” And when it’s the mother travelling without the children they say, “Where are the kids?”

Pip: We have to create flexible work environments that are accessible for everyone. As soon as we make flexible work environments about women you actually create a whole different set of issues. At Microsoft we started out trying to prove how clever we were and developed a really long list of flexible work options. Then somebody asked the question, “What if somebody wants to work flexibly but it’s not on this list?” And we’re like, “Oh, rats”. So we ripped up the list and came up with a philosophy which basically says — what works for you can work for us.

Caroline: Do you sometimes make an effort to flamboyantly say, “I am going to the children’s school concert today”?

Kirstin: It’s called leaving loudly.

Pip: My kids are probably some of the most recognised kids in the office. I bring my kids in. I’ve had them on stage at company events. I’m proudly a mum. I love my job but I love my family more and the lines between work and home are blurred. I remember growing up with my dad. He left the office at a certain time. It was like clockwork and there was no computer in the house and it was a very clear delineation. That’s not the age I live in, but that’s also beneficial for me. I can be more present for my kids because maybe I am going to do some things later tonight, or at a different time.

Caroline Overington: As women, we all want to believe that we can get where we are going on the basis of merit. But the older you get, the more it dawns on you: something is holding women back. They come out of university in equal numbers. They get good, entry-level jobs. At some point, the numbers start to fall away. The vast majority of people in positions of leadership are men. Therefore, if you believe that appointments are being made on merit, then in 90 per cent of cases, a man was the right choice to sit on the ASX 200 board; and in 95 per cent of cases, a man was the right choice to run the company. Does that sound right? What is holding women back? The truth is, we don’t know, only that it’s there. It’s definitely there, and tackling the problem, even in a discussion of this type, is one of the most important things that women in leadership positions can do.

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