Disrupting the Status Quo

Photograph by Glenn Hunt


Male leaders who set the rules and stereotypes are the
new focus in the battle for gender equality at work.

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LEADERSHIP: So much effort, so little progress. This was the sentiment on Twitter as senior executives shared their disappointment at new research that showed women are still missing from executive positions, impacting the pipeline for CEO positions.

Almost one-quarter of Australia’s top 200 publicly listed companies have no women in their senior executive teams. And almost two thirds have no women in key line management positions, according to publicly available data compiled by Chief Executive Women.

It’s research like this that really fires up Julie McKay. McKay is Chief Diversity and Inclusion Partner at PwC Australia, taking up the role in June 2017 to run the advisory business from PwC’s Brisbane office.

“Everyone acknowledges change is too slow,” she says.

McKay notes Australia has also slipped from 15th to 16th position on PwC’s Women in Work Index, which gives a snapshot of female economic empowerment across 33 countries. “One big reason Australia lags other countries is because we still have very traditional expectations of women to take on unpaid care work - including child rearing and care of elderly relatives,” she says.

There is also a new counter-trend to worry about - a sense of fatigue, with some executives feeling they have ‘done diversity’, despite having made limited progress, and others saying: “We’ve tried that. It hasn’t worked that well. Let’s focus on other things.”

“There’s also a bit of a backlash, with a narrative in the workplace that you can’t get a promotion if you’re a bloke, which is concerning,” McKay says. 

One team of 12 including three women agreed to stop talking about football in the Monday morning meeting. They changed the topic to what they did with their family and friends and it completely changed the dynamic.

Julie McKay

On the other hand, she says, organisations know they can’t give up. “Clients increasingly want advice on designing and implementing diversity inclusion strategies and targets that will drive real change,” she says.

“Some of this is the big push from the boardroom – not just because it’s impacting business performance but also employment brands. Our research shows that 82 per cent of female millennials consider policies on diversity, equality and workforce inclusion when choosing work.”

McKay says most firms are putting in significant effort to introduce best practice on issues like gender pay policy, flexibility and family violence support. But there is a growing realisation that there is no silver bullet.

So what’s next? “The big question clients are asking is how do we disrupt the status quo,” she says.

“That means working with the creators of the rules and stereotypes – mostly men - to identify the barriers in each organisation and try to shift the dial. They are the people who can intervene and cause change to happen fast.

It’s the equivalent to the journey that mining went on around safety, getting senior leaders and managers to understand the what, where and why and then holding people accountable for change.”

There are a number of ways to push transformative change. One is to get the dominant group to reflect on their legacy. “End of life reflections for most men are regret they didn’t spend enough time with family and communities, and for women, that society had made too many choices for them,” McKay says.

“For the next generation, we need to try and support both men and women to have a more balanced view of what success looks like and how career success fits into that.”

It’s also addressing insecurity around inclusive leadership. “There’s lot of fear about what it means to share power. It’s not a zero-sum game where if women get opportunities, then men lose,” she says. “We have conversations with the dominant players about how you as an individual can be more inclusive. If it’s not their natural state, you have to make them conscious of things they might be doing that impact team members - often just helping someone to understand how they are perceived can help them identify opportunities for more inclusive leadership.”

She also gets the leaders to focus on a time when they felt excluded to build understanding. One program which is having good results is getting other members of the team to provide the leader feedback.

“A person might share with the leader how they feel when they use careless language, such as comments about being late for work again after that person has done the school drop off. Over time that takes a toll,” McKay says.

After such a session, one team of 12 including three women agreed to stop talking about football in the Monday morning meeting. “They changed the topic to what they did with their family and friends and it completely changed the dynamic,” she says. There is a growing focus on how the structure of work is changing. “Making flexible work available for men and women and encouraging men to take up flexibility also breaks down traditional gender roles,” she says.

“Most organisations are asking how do we build pipelines of flexible and part-time careers.”

Technology and new ways of working are also changing clients’ expectations. “In the past there was an expectation you would be available all the time to clients,” McKay says.

“But leaders who model flexibility gives permission for others to work flexibly. And it’s also about having courageous conversations with clients about how you work best. Clients are facing the same challenges and are grateful for the honesty.”

Another major issue to tackle is hiring on merit.

“There is a complete belief the merit system will get the best talent to senior leadership but this isn’t true,” she says.

“Merit is a mix of past performance and future potential. Past performance can be assessed relatively objectively. On the other hand, potential is highly subjective so shifting your thinking on merit leads to very different recruitment outcomes.”

Targets are also gaining traction as boards realise a lack of targets mean it is very difficult to measure success. There is also the very real possibility that quotas might be introduced. There are now 22 countries with quotas for women on business and government boards.

“If you look around the world, the countries which have seen transformative change have implemented quotas.”

Business and risk planners should already be taking quotas into account. “They need to think how ready would we be if the Australian Government was to legislate quotas for boards and leadership teams,” she says.

It’s also critical the CEO leads the initiative. “If I was sitting on a corporate board,” she says, “I would want regular, independent reviews to see whether diversity initiatives are working and quarterly updates.”

McKay is also in charge of PwC Australia’s own diversity and inclusion initiatives. The former United Nations Women Executive Director and Gender Adviser to the Chief of the Defence Force, was working as a consultant last year while she had her first child.

“I was excited about PwC because I thought if I could shift the mindset around diversity and inclusion within PwC and have an impact on our clients, we would be part of an enormous societal shift,” she says.

McKay says PwC, like all organisations, starts to lose talent in senior leadership roles.

“We are making progress. We admitted 91 partners this year, 40 per cent women, taking the total number of female partners to 24 per cent, up from 16 per cent three years ago,” she says.

“We’re not perfect, but we are well on the way to understanding the opportunity that diversity and inclusion brings for us and our clients.” 


The Press is a publication by PwC Australia, aimed at sharing expertise, capturing insights and working together to solve important problems.

This article first appeared in Edition 3 of The Press
By Amanda Gome, Editor, The Press

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