Diversity policies coming out of our ying yangs…..

That’s a rather excellent quote from a gender diversity debate I attended just over a year ago. It was made by the wonderful Kerryn Phelps as she expressed our shared frustration at how slow progress has been.

I’ve worked in a male-dominant environment throughout my career, most clients were male, as were most colleagues. I quickly got used to being the only female in the room, while resolving to redress the balance any way that I could (for example, mentoring less experienced female colleagues).

For many years, I described myself as “gender blind”, I didn’t focus on gender at work and didn’t expect that it would be an issue. With hindsight, I believe that I was incredibly lucky to have had such positive experiences in my early career….they fostered a confidence that I would lean on later in life. That said, things did happen, but not very often. One very old school, male client (aka the dinosaur) suggested, in a room full of executives whom I was training, that I sit on his knee as there weren’t enough chairs after he joined our session. I ignored him and kept talking. Later, another client told me that I had pretty much “buried the guy” ⚰️ with my “death look” 👹, which is why the dinosaur shut up straight away. I didn’t even know I had a “death look” until then….but I’m glad that I do! 💪👊

Years later, having moved to Australia, my expat friends and I realised pretty quickly that Australia was running waaay behind the rest of the world when it came to gender equality. The stories we heard from Australian working women were nothing short of shocking. Most organisations’ talent pipelines bore this out….women progress to a certain point in their careers, and then…..nothing…..I was fortunate enough to work for a corporate that took this issue seriously, especially in their technology team, where the gender diversity stats were dire. Knowing that I was passionate about advancing talented women, my then boss encouraged my proposal to target our female talent, before their careers stalled, and to make some speculative investments in addressing possible causes.

My proposal was not about “fixing” these women, but making sure that they were getting the right opportunities for face time with senior execs and possible sponsors. It did also include skills development to assist them with career planning and telling their story. It was a huge success….female engagement increased significantly, male perceptions shifted, our talent pipeline looked better than ever, and we learned that we had a much richer and more diverse pool of talent to promote from. A win all round 😀 This was achieved by working on these activities in my free time (I still had my day job as a CIO), supported by a passionate, cross-functional team of volunteers. Then, I got a new boss….who suggested that I step away from “all that gender stuff” as “it’s not a good look and is perceived as that’s all I’m about”. This was while I was running the largest and most successful technology transformation the company had ever undertaken…..what a load of undermining bollocks!

More recently, I’ve been unlucky to work for an organisation that spends LOTS of money on diversity initiatives, but has a toxic, low trust culture where these investments have little hope of really succeeding while the entrenched bad behaviours are accepted and allowed to continue. Not acting quickly and decisively enough to address issues is a failure of leadership and governance. As they say, the tone comes from the top…