A salute to Gail Kelly

One of Australia’s highest profile female CEO’s for the last 13 years.

A salute to Gail Kelly

Gail Kelly, CEO of Westpac Bank is retiring in February 2015. Including her time at St George Bank, she has been one of Australia’s highest profile female CEO’s for the last 13 years.

In an interview on the day Ms Kelly publicly announced her retirement, she was asked earnestly by senior business journalists “how she balanced her work and family responsibilities?” She dealt with the questions with grace and style, but the fact that the questions were even asked remains a damming indictment on how we continue to perceive work and the roles that men and women play in the contemporary workplaces.

When NAB CEO Cameron Cline resigned in April 2014, nobody asked him how he balanced his work and family commitments. Although there were several interesting assessments at the time of his exit, which suggested that at 46, and having been in the job for 6 years that it was proof again that such ‘young’ CEO’s can’t really be relied upon. A classic baby boomer backhander if ever there was one, but that is a blog for another day!

I’ve followed the rise and rise of Gail Kelly for many years and felt an affinity with her. Along her career journey, Kelly trained as a high school teacher and for a time pursued a career as a senior HR Executive, as did I. That’s about where the similarities end, but her genuine respect for top quality human resources strategy has seen her present many times over the years at HR forums. I’ve been fortunate enough to listen to her speak several times and her message has remained essentially the same ~ treat your people with respect and trust, invest in their development and your faith will be repaid.

By the time of her exit, this will reduce the number of female CEO’s in the top 100 Australian listed companies down from 3 to 2. They’re not great numbers!

When I speak with professional women about this issue, I get no shortage of passionate engagement. An emerging theme, particularly for my Gen X peer group is that they are simply not prepared to put up with the baggage that comes with playing the corporate game. It’s not just the hours, or the obvious pay inequities or the frustration of being forced to make career or baby decisions, although all of these things continue to be major disincentives. What is hard to fathom in late 2014 is that virtually every senior woman I know has a story of having experienced institutionalised sexism to overt and direct sexual harassment from men whom they have to spend far too much time sitting next to at the Executive table.

Too many women in their 30’s and 40’s are quietly disappearing from corporate life because they make the choice that life is short and too precious to waste in these environments. From a workforce planning perspective, this is a disaster because the talent pool is robbed of some of its very best assets. The fact that these women have a strong enough sense of identity and self-worth to walk away is also the reason why we need them to stay.

I continue to confidently assert that our workplaces are on the threshold of the greatest social change in more than 30 years, as the baby boomers retire in huge numbers. As that happens, business leaders will bend over backwards to accommodate the type of flexibility arrangements, transparency and inclusiveness that for so long has seen to be impossible to achieve. The war for talent, particularly senior and experienced women, will see many old behaviours disappear. There is nothing like an existential threat to focus the mind.

When this happens we should all give thanks to Gail Kelly and women like her, who have paved the way and given hope to many to hang in there.

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