what ive learned

I was CEO of Incitec Pivot, a global diversified industrial chemicals company, for eight years. Early in my tenure, I noticed that 50 per cent of the graduates we were bringing in were women. But a couple of years later, they’d be leaving. So in 2012, I sat down with them and asked, “What’s it like to be a woman working for us?” I learned it was pretty difficult to be a woman in the company I led.

That made me aware of everyday sexism and stereotyping of roles. Even if women were the most senior people in the room, they’d be minute-takers, they’d have to pull the plastic wrap off the sandwiches, they’d clean up afterwards. They sound like small things, but they’re not if you encounter them every day. The system was structured to make it far easier for men, rather than women, to be promoted. I recognised this was unacceptable and committed to make the necessary changes. I became involved in the Male Champions of Change coalition in 2015, when the Melbourne group was formed.

When you have a partner who’s a trailblazer, you also tend to pick up on unwritten rules. My wife, Helen, was the first female partner in the Melbourne office of a multinational accounting firm (PwC). In 1999, she was invited out to a business lunch at one of Melbourne’s male-only clubs. The client who organised it just assumed that partner couldn’t possibly be a woman. They had to clear the whole floor just so she could have lunch. It was awkward. At the same time, she was mentored by a number of outstanding senior male partners and so I learned the power of men stepping up beside women to drive change.

If you’ve got a culture where everyday sexism is present, you’ve probably got harassment too, because it’s the same culture that does both.

I worked with Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner and co-convener of the Male Champions of Change group. Kate released the landmark Respect@Work report in March, based on the findings of the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces she led. That really bore out two things for me. Number one, harassment is prevalent in Australian workplaces, even if you think it’s not. Secondly, what we’ve done up until this point hasn’t worked. We need to do something radically different.

“I’ve found that more diverse teams have productivity improvement of about 20 per cent, and better customer service, safety, financials, leadership and engagement. More diverse teams are better at solving adaptive problems.”

Changing culture

The Male Champions of Change coalition has just released a roadmap for changing how we manage sexual harassment in the workplace. Disrupting the System — Preventing and Responding to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace identifies that harassment has traditionally been treated as a grievance procedure or a dispute resolution issue. But having lawyers in every corner just results in unacceptable outcomes.

Typically, it’s women who are harassed and men who do the harassing. The woman would leave after a payout and a non-disclosure agreement and the man would stay. We propose that, due to the harm it causes, harassment is a workplace health and safety issue.

The prevention of sexual harassment should be a key accountability for boards, CEOs and executive teams. Boards need to own this issue; to take a leadership position and say, “Look the standard’s going to be zero tolerance of harassment. The way we operate as a board will reflect that and we’ll hold the CEO accountable.”

Treating harassment as a safety issue really does liberate your thinking, because organisations already have processes in place to manage health and safety. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. In safety, we regularly report incidents, look for the systemic factors that drive the incidents and don’t accept under-reporting. It’s the same for harassment.

If you can discover harassment early, you can do something about it. The comment made in a meeting or the inappropriate behaviour — address it then and there, as in most cases women just want the behaviour to stop. That way, you prevent the major case that’s going to hit the headlines. Men need to speak up because it’s exhausting for women to have to do so continuously. It’s easier to call it out if you’re the CEO or you sit on a board. That’s why leadership really matters — you doing it allows others to do it.

Driving diversity

My role with Manufacturing Australia has further reinforced the power of diversity, even in non-traditional areas such as the shop floor. Diversity is Australia’s growth edge. If you compare the proportion of women in the workforce, in senior roles and generally in business with the number of women in society, there’s a significant gap. Particularly in the COVID-19 environment, we need to push with every competitive advantage we’ve got. I’ve found that more diverse teams have productivity improvement of about 20 per cent, and better customer service, safety, financials, leadership and engagement. More diverse teams are better at solving adaptive problems.

Incitec excluded women from leadership positions in “non-traditional areas” such as manufacturing or on mine sites by defining the key leadership competency as years and years of technical experience. So in 2014, we totally changed our leadership model. We said, “We want great leaders, not technical experts”. This allowed us to double the number of women in operations and drive productivity.

We’ve got to drive system change. There is a group who want the status quo to continue, but the vast majority of men, when you make them aware of harassment and everyday sexism, are actually horrified and want to change. All of these issues are connected. The culture in an organisation that says everyday sexism is OK is exactly the culture that says harassment is OK.

The reason I’m so interested in gender is if you can get that right, it pulls through a lot of other diversity elements — age, cultural background, sexual orientation, all abilities. If you’re an organisation that embraces all women, it’s not a huge step to say, “Let’s be an organisation that values employees for the different perspectives and experiences they bring.” Because then we’re fully embracing the gift that is diversity.