The secret to boosting productivity and profitability

As profit margins shrink in a tight property and construction market, it is the companies that embrace fresh ideas and innovative approaches that will not just survive, but thrive.

This requires us to reflect on our collective and individual leadership, and to ask whether we are sending the right signals to women in our industry.

Why is it, for example, that while 58 per cent of Australia’s university graduates are women, just 12 per cent of women are board directors and only 3.5 per cent are chief executive officers?

Why is it that 48 of the ASX 200 companies do not have a woman on their board?

And why is it that the average starting salary for female graduates in the construction industry is $9,000 less than their male counterparts?

The bad old days of men downing tools when a woman walked onto the construction site may be gone, but there is still much to be done before the property and construction industry is harnessing the full potential of 50 per cent of Australia’s workforce.

As Canberra’s property industry gathered to examine the nexus between gender equity, productivity and profitability at a Property Council ACT Division luncheon this week, panellist Carol Schwartz argued: “50 per cent of the population can’t have all the brains and all the merit.”

The fact that there are not more women in leadership positions or sitting around the boardroom table is “a problem with the system and the way our organisations are structured,” Schwartz, Director of Stockland and the Bank of Melbourne, and Founding Chair of the Women’s Leadership Institute of Australia, said.

Bain and Co’s 2011 report What stops women from reaching the top? found that 90 per cent of men in senior leadership positions are more likely to appoint or promote someone with a similar style to their own. Anabelle Pegrum, Director of local strategic planning firm PegrumJudd, called this the ‘mini me attitude’ which has resulted in leaders promoting people just like them. “What they fail to see is that diverse perspectives deliver the best outcomes,” Pegrum said.

Organisations which value diversity and inclusiveness have been found to reap the financial rewards, and research by McKinsey & Co has found those companies with a higher proportion of women in the top tiers of management perform better than those who do not.

The women on the panel all lamented the fact that very little had changed for women’s leadership in decades, and while their views diverged on whether quotas were key, they all agreed, as Pegrum said, “we’ve been having these conversations for 35 years – something has to shift.” The efforts of the Business Council of Australia, which recently announced it intends to increase the number of women in senior management roles to 50 per cent over the next decade, was applauded.

So, is there still a glass ceiling preventing women from seizing the same opportunities as men? Deborah Page, Chairman of Investa Office Fund, said it came down to one thing: “women are too polite”.

The solutions are simple to articulate, but harder to execute.

Firstly, we need to ‘mainstream’ flexibility. Lynne Pezullo, Director of Deloitte Access Economics, pointed out that “50 per cent of the population doesn’t have all the merit, but the other 50 per cent has the responsibility of bearing 100 per cent of our children.” Women are over-represented in unpaid caring and volunteering roles, and attracting and retaining them requires more flexible work practices. This is relevant across the breath of roles in our industry – whether that’s a lawyer negotiating a lease agreement or a project manager on the construction site. Flexible workplaces not only encourage diversity, but also foster innovation and productivity, rather than a focus on processes and presenteeism.

We must also end the ‘leadership lottery’ by ensuring that our organisations actively develop, promote and advance women. One of the best ways to do this is through mentoring programs. Deborah Page likes the idea of all managers championing a ‘rising female star’.

“The solutions are in the hands of board chairs,” she says. “We need to get rid of some of the people who have sat on these boards for decades and embrace new faces and new thinking. It may mean increasing the number of directors on a board. It definitely means making decisions that encourage up-and-coming women.”

And boards need to begin to ask the question: “50/50: if not, why not?”

Deloitte’s Pezullo, ever the number cruncher, reminded the audience that Canberra is in the enviable position of having the highest average incomes in the country, as well as the highest levels of education. Our industry has a golden opportunity to leverage the highly-talented, highly-educated pool of Canberra women to improve diversity, boost productivity and build better, more profitable businesses.

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia