Elizabeth Proust: Myths & Realities in Managing a Woman’s Career #AHRINC

31 of the ASX top 200 boards have no women on the board.

Woah. Australia, what’s happening? Norway mandated (and acheived) 40% board membership by women in 7 years. 7 years!

23 of ASX 500 companies have no women in their executive. In small busineses women do much better (are we getting sick of corporate culture). At the current rate, we’ll get equality in 177 years on boards and in in execs.

This isn’t just an equity issue, it’s a waste of talent.

Over Elizabeth’s career (3 decades across a variety of sectors) she’s learned:

  • The need for lifelong education and training (her mother missed out on her last year of school due to her grandfather’s attitude towards women’s education) so as a child/teen Elizabeth was encouraged not to focus on domestic tasks so she could do homework. Advice to women? Have at least one domestic task you can’t, or won’t do. (Love it!)
  • The need for supportive relationships (whatever that means to you). Choosing partners/relationships wisely is critical. Elizabeth shared details of her supportive, equal partner (she married very young – but her husband supported her in her career seeing it as equally as important as his).
  • Networking is critical – especially when it comes to more senior roles this becomes more and more imporant. Women sometimes (says she is speaking generally) that hard work and long hours = promotions, it doesn’t always
  • Nave a go at a job you think you can do. (Tells the story of a role in the late 80s where of over 100 applicants were all men – the line manager requested that women apply and Elizabeth encouraged someone to who then went on to get the role)
  • Take risks. Her career success has largely been due to moving outside of organisations (rather than being promoted within them). A good network is critical to this.
  • Women tend to question their own competence. It’s hard to put aside those doubts.
  • Mentors are critical. All of Elizabeth’s mentors have been men – goes hand in hand with networking. It’s a myth that women don’t help other women. Elizabeth is a mentor in the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
  • Don’t jump to board roles too soon (Elizabeth took her first position at 55). Having battle scars helps a huge amount (although she’s open to being questioned about this in the Q&A). 
  • Get as much experience as you can in your company, in other roles (just HR isn’t generally enough) – but a variety of experiences is key. Boards are getting smaller (it’s not just a cost issue).

If you have an attitude that you can acheive anything – go for it.

Question Time (With Peter Wilson AM, National President & Chairman AHRI)

  • If you are the only woman on a management/leadership team it can be tough
  • Peter asks Elizabeth about how to engage and communicate effectively as a woman in a leadership position: don’t defer to men, prepare (know what you’re going to make a point on and what you’re not)
  • What about dealing with buillies? Speak up for others – tell the bully what you thought, why the behaviour is offensive and inappropriate (otherwise it becomes “how we do things around here”)
  • Stepping up in your career – what were some of the issues you had to confront to rebalance? For Elizabeth this came earlier (e.g. advisor to Minister, there was only 3 of them and at least one of them had to be at Parliament) so a lot of long work hours = a big dislocation of normal life.
  • What makes you successful in this role doesn’t automatically make you successful in the next (especially when going from managing small teams of people to large teams of people)
  • To get gender equity right at exec ranks: get the board to set targets (include that on the board score card), and hold execs and other HR professionals accountable for striving to do better in this space

Audience Question Time

  • Natural lifespan of a board role? Possibly 9-12 years? There is no magic in it – it’s what is right for that person and that organisation
  • Targets – no targets = it won’t get measured = it won’t happen. Be careful with boards though (don’t want to deplete exec ranks to fill boards as it’s the exec and management that set the culture of the organisation)
  • What does the emphasis on moving organsiations mean for organisations who want to keep their top talent. Some organisations do it well. Elizabeth gives the example of Nestle who are great at developing women’s careers (although they do need to be mobile). Companies’ timescales (for promotion etc.) can be different to what your own timescales are (e.g. them saying you can have a great job in 3 years… when you can’t think of anything worse than staying for another 1).
  • Language (Chair-man) – Elizabeth doesn’t have an issue with it, although notices more people calling it ‘Chair’
  • How do women champion gender equality? Argue it on economic grounds: it’s bad business to not use all your talent.

What an inspiring (and practical) session.

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