Business leaders discuss how to conquer the gender divide

More flexible working hours at all levels of business – for both men and women – and family-friendly workplaces are just some of the changes that need to be widely adopted if parity is to be achieved.

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Panellists at NAB’s International Women’s Day breakfast in Melbourne addressed some of the core issues needed to achieve parity, including more flexible working hours – for both men and women – and family-friendly workplaces. The Pancake Parlour’s Mandy David and i=Change’s Jeremy Meltzer joined NAB’s Cindy Batchelor, Antony Cahill and Leigh O’Neill on stage.

Women’s struggle for parity in the business world is much more than the push for equal pay; it’s the struggle to be seen as true equals rather than being forced to act like a man to get ahead in a man’s world.

“I spent the early part of my career trying to act like a man in a male-dominated industry,” says Mandy David, Managing Director of The Pancake Parlour restaurant group.

“Even then my passion for people and food was constantly mistaken for emotion and I was knocked on the head quite a few times for bringing too much emotion to the table and not acting more like a man.”

Speaking on the panel at NAB’s International Women’s Day breakfast in Melbourne, David says it wasn’t until her early forties that she found the confidence to step forward as a leader. Finding the courage to be herself was also a challenge for fellow panellist Cindy Batchelor – Executive General Manager of NAB Business – when she stepped up into a senior management role.

“As a woman in a predominately male-dominated business, it takes confidence and courage to be yourself rather than play along with the traditional male ‘this is the way we’ve always done things’ attitude,” Batchelor says.

“I run a big business and love it, but I’m a Mum first – the way I run things is different and people know I’m very open about how I run my life. You’ve got to be vocal about that and give permission for both males and females to be honest about their life and what they can contribute because they’ve got an awful lot to give.”

Valuing workplace flexibility

A crucial part of this approach is an openness to flexible work hours, says The Pancake Parlour’s David. As Managing Director, David places a strong emphasis on flexibility at all levels of the organisation to ensure that all her staff can achieve their full potential – particularly when it comes to helping to manage the challenges of parenthood.

“I work closely with my return-to-work mums and dads, their partners and their partners’ employers to try to maintain their need for equality at home and shared responsibilities. It means being flexible and every stakeholder has to play a part,” David says.

“To make that work I started off by working from eight in the morning until nine at night, trying to fit in with everybody, but eventually, I also had to take my own advice and develop a flexible work schedule.”

One of the significant challenges facing parents working in the restaurant and catering industries is the need for childcare outside of traditional business hours. It’s a key factor in David’s struggle to attract and maintain women leaders in the business.

“I’ve got a wonderful team of women in my human resources team who juggle children and home commitments, but they’re paying exorbitant fees for nannies out of hours and receiving no tax deduction for it,” she says. “I’d like to see a change in this area; it’s a significant issue in our industry.”

Family-friendly policies

Implementing parent-friendly policies is a challenge for every industry and an area where NAB can also improve, says Antony Cahill – NAB’s Group Executive, Product & Markets.

“The fact that we have 8am meetings, well we need to stop that,” Cahill says. “Scheduling early morning meetings instantly sends a message, conscious or not, about not recognising that both females and males have responsibilities outside of work.”

“Unless we address core issues like this we’re in danger of only putting a veneer over the top of parity issues rather than striving for fundamental change.”

Cahill said affordable and accessible childcare plays an important role in maintaining the lifestyle balance but also a broader change in corporate culture is also required to make it more acceptable for men to take on more parental responsibilities

Men also need to step up

Men must engage – not only by encouraging women to step up in the business world and by creating an environment where this is possible – but by actively supporting women to realise their fullest potential, says Jeremy Meltzer, an Australian entrepreneur and founder of i=Change.

“We need to raise consciousness around these issues, so that men become active agents of change. Otherwise, these issues will only ever shift so far,” Meltzer says. “It’s important men understand the benefits – both the business and moral case. Far from a threat, women’s appointment to senior positions almost always increases profitability, often exponentially.

This change needs to be part of a wider rethink of how we assess productivity, focusing on outcomes rather than time spent sitting at a desk, says Leigh O’Neill – NAB’s Executive General Manager of Micro & Small Business.

“We need a good, fair and flexible work policy for everyone. Socially I think it is hard for men to be able to work part-time,” she says.

“I’ve never seen a male job share, but until we make it equally socially acceptable for men to work part-time and for men to pick up their kids without the weight of guilt, it’s very hard to solve the problem for women.”