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Men's club steps up for gender equality

Three years ago, aged 39, Pip Marlow reached the top of the business ladder, becoming chief executive of one of the country's leading corporations. Yet even that exalted position wasn't enough to shield her from patronising assumptions by some men about how gender might affect her ability to do the job.

Three years ago, aged 39, Pip Marlow reached the top of the business ladder, becoming chief executive of one of the country's leading corporations. Yet even that exalted position wasn't enough to shield her from patronising assumptions by some men about how gender might affect her ability to do the job.

The Microsoft Australia boss still finds herself running into occasional bias, "conscious and unconscious", she told Fairfax Media this week. "Just the other day, I had somebody [a businessman] comment to me that it must be difficult for me as a female to make a 7.30 morning meeting. She shot back "no more challenging than it is for my husband".

Marlow, who juggles a busy schedule around the needs of two daughters, aged 9 and 12, says one of her core aims as chief executive is to "support a cultural norm where unconscious bias does not exist, where there is flexibility in the workplace so people of all backgrounds can do their best work".

Coming from Marlow, who has to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk, the rhetoric seems genuine. But elsewhere in corporate Australia, noble sentiment has too often atrophied into token - or no - action. This week, though, there were signs the tide might be turning.

On Wednesday, two dozen alpha males, leading executives and chiefs from some of the country's most senior public institutions, pledged more action to advance women in their organisations.

The group, which has grown from a core originally hand-picked by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, call themselves Male Champions of Change and they include federal departmental heads Ian Watt (Prime Minister and Cabinet) and Martin Parkinson (Treasury), army chief Lieutenant-General David Morrison, Qantas boss Alan Joyce, ASX chief Elmer Funke Kupper, banking heads Ian Narev (CBA) and Mike Smith (ANZ), Telstra's David Thodey, Simon Rothery from Goldman Sachs, Stephen Roberts from Citi, and KPMG's Geoff Wilson.

Turning out in force at a forum in Sydney, the group launched a 12-point action plan to swell the number of women in their own senior ranks, and to put pressure on the companies they deal with to do the same.

"Too often," they said in a joint statement, "we have found that women's experiences and their advancement are ... dependent on whether they are lucky enough to have a manager or sponsor who is supportive and inclusive. We need to end the leadership lottery."

Mike Smith confessed he'd never seen himself as the member of any self-help group, but "this is kind of what the Male Champions of Change has been for us - minus the group hugs".

He declared he'd had an "epiphany" after signing up to Broderick's initiative, realising that men with a track record of hiring and advancing women were "quite rare" and should be "celebrated".

Putting their heads together, the "champions" have produced a 12-point action list that includes some seriously practical suggestions, such as the "plus one" initiative. Smith explained that this meant "managers across our organisations add at least one woman to their teams as roles arise; and if not, we'll be asking 'why not?"'

Other measures include providing incentives for suppliers to redress gender imbalances in their ranks; the mentoring or sponsorship of women; making sure women get the "hot jobs" in organisations; normalising flexible hours; getting managers and recruitment agencies to cast their nets wider, rather than just "like hiring like"; and setting and implementing internal goals for a better balance.

It was also crucial, the group said, to ensure part-time workers were not excluded from executive teams. "We want to help debunk the myth that flexible working impedes productivity and signals low career aspirations".

Most important of all was a "personal belief" in the task. "For many of us, there has been a personal conversion," they said. "We have moved from an intellectual understanding to full engagement of the heart and mind."

Whether all this amounts to a lasting shift in the business zeitgeist remains to be seen.

Broderick is hopeful. "What was historic about this week's event was that there were many more men in that room than women," she says of the several hundred strong audience. "It was about action, not rhetoric - and recognising that if we want change, powerful men have to take the message about gender equality to other men."

There were green shoots from another quarter as well. The Business Council of Australia, an invitation-only club of the country's leading CEOs, came to the party this week with its own prescriptions for increasing female representation in the upper echelons of the workplace.

Deputy director Maria Tarrant says the aim is to get many more women in the "pipeline" leading to the "C-suite" - shorthand for roles that tend to have "chief" in their title.

Most recommendations were drawn from a report done for the BCA by former James Hardie chairman Meredith Hellicar. The report makes compelling reading for women who have struggled to pinpoint exactly what it is that stands in the way of their advancement.

Hellicar highlights research showing that when CVs are identical, "the male is preferred twice as often as the female".

And there are telling insights into the different ways in which men and women promote their careers. In performance reviews, women tend to "under-rate, or realistically rate, themselves, and men to over-rate themselves, particularly when the criteria are ambiguous" she writes. To counter this, Hellicar suggests companies "avoid the practice of reviewees presenting their self-assessed scores".

Pip Marlow's experience bears out such observations. "When women are applying for jobs, they seem to feel the need to be closer to 95 per cent ready ... while with men [it's OK] to be 75 per cent there. It's a great attribute ... but the challenge is [equitable outcomes] for the women," she says.

While the BCA has set its members the goal of having women occupy 50 per cent of senior jobs in a decade, sceptics highlight the fact that sectors such as resources will find that hard to achieve until more women graduate from courses such as engineering.

Broderick dismisses this as an excuse, saying smart organisations will devise ways to tackle this problem, such as by reaching out to girls in schools.

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