Where are all the well connected business women?

In spite of the relatively progressive attitudes towards gender equality in this part of the world, women are still grossly underrepresented in the upper echelons of New Zealand and Australian business.

The good news is that the figures are improving slightly with the latest percentage of women on ASX200 Boards at 14.5% (as at 16 Aug 2012) and it’s up to 20% for the elite ASX20 companies, according to AICD. One third of the new Board appointees have been women this year which accounts for the improvement.

Recent moves by both the ASX and the NZX require listed companies to provide a gender breakdown of their boards and executives, and evidence of how they are measuring up against their diversity policies. These moves are for good reason.

Research shows that companies with diverse gender boards have better financial outcomes than those with all–male boards. An interesting aspect of this research is that there appears to be an optimal middle zone, with companies performing best when female board representation hits 30% to 60%. But over 60% and the advantage is lost, in which case there is lower pay and prestige than in companies dominated by men.

A recent report by Credit Suisse looked at 2360 companies globally and found it would have been better to invest in those with women on their management boards than those without.

So why are women still relatively scarce in our boardrooms and management teams and how do we fix it? One theory puts it down to the importance of networking as a key assistor in climbing the corporate ladder. Research by Optimice showed that women in the very top positions are particularly well connected and being well connected takes time and effort. The challenge for many women is a that a lot of bonding, deal-making and shoulder-tapping for promotions still happens on the golf course, the corporate box at the footy or in that 5pm–8pm time slot over an after work beer or formal networking event.

For women juggling work and family commitments, early evening is the worst time of day for socialising and networking. Who has time for pub visits when there are kids to be picked up, mouths to feed and school work to check at home? And of course many women avoid going for top corporate jobs because they know the added workload will undermine their ability to fulfil family commitments.

This is certainly true in my own experience. A male business contact mentioned to me recently that I seem very structured and he has to make an appointment a week or two out, so I don’t get invited to informal get-togethers as much as I could. The reality is that I'm not that structured but I do try to work from home as much as possible and pick my evening events very carefully, so spontaneous after hours networking is rare.

Making an effort to get to know customers on a more social basis has proven worthwhile though. The ‘old boys’ network’ is as strong as ever in Melbourne but sometimes I think we women are simply not comfortable doing the 'beer after work' thing so need to find other ways to connect through sport or charity events, not for profit committees, or even through mentoring. And it’s not all about the beer! Men like a coffee and chat just as much as women, we just don’t invite them.

A young female client recently told me that she just puts her head down and gets on with the work while her male manager builds the relationships – a situation I see time and time again. Many women focus on improving their qualifications but fail to improve their professional connections. The doors are not necessarily closed, we just don’t get out there, purposefully build relationships and make ourselves known for the right reasons and this, it would seem from the research, impacts on our careers.

But there are plenty of inspiring examples of women who have managed to climb to the top while juggling many balls. Look no further than Westpac head Gail Kelly – like me a mother of four including triplets, and she's considered by Forbes as one of the world’s most powerful women in business. Perhaps the trick is to be organised enough to juggle, while keeping enough flex in your diary to allow for some of those unscheduled, and valuable, informal networking opportunities. And remember - it’s not who you know but who knows you!

PS: Here’s a new website Women’s Agenda which I’m finding really interesting.

Posted: Wednesday 22 August 2012

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