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Teaching, sharing and flexing: our CEO reflects on International Women’s Day

Today being International Women’s Day, you don’t need to be Nostradamus to predict that the media will be awash with statistics and stories around the theme of gender equality.  Nor would you have to be clairvoyant to predict that the numbers will read pretty similar to last year.

Here they are: A recent report by the Business Council of Australia, McKinsey & Company and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) highlighted the fact that women make up 42 per cent of employees but just 25 per cent of executives and only 10 per cent of CEOs in large, for-profit Australian companies.

As CEO of Cannings Purple, it’s sobering that in this day and age I’m among a minority.  What’s more sobering is the WGEA projection that it won’t be until the year 2100 that we will have equal representation for males and females in our CEO ranks.

It’s clear that some progress is being made but when people ask me “what does gender equality look like”, my response is: “not 30 per cent” (the mark ASX200 companies have almost reached for women on boards) and “not 14.6 per cent” (the gender pay gap in Australia, our lowest for 20 years).

But I like to be a problem solver, and rather than dwell on the numbers, I’d rather focus on what some of the practical solutions might look like, and what we as a collective can do to expedite the transition to a world where women on boards are as unremarkable as men being primary carers, if that’s what they choose.

So I stopped to think about what made my path to executive leadership and company director embarrassingly smooth, sans any major barriers (or glass ceiling) along the way.

Teach our children

On reflection, I believe the path-smoothing started very young.  More to the point, I don’t remember a time in my home life when I wasn’t ‘equal’, and anything I wanted to do was considered ‘unsuitable’ or worse still, ‘impossible’.

My Mum always worked and, growing up, there weren’t specific ‘girl jobs’ or ‘boy jobs’ in our home; there were just ‘jobs’. My brother and I shared kitchen and yard chores alike.

We also both grew up with a strong work ethic born of necessity.  There wasn’t a lot of money in our working-class family, and so nothing was ever handed to us.  We both learned from an early age that if we wanted anything, we had to go out and earn it.

Sharing the caring

My husband and I started our family later than most, by which time we had both advanced along our respective career paths.  There wasn’t a question of either or us giving up or pausing our careers when we became parents, just a natural acceptance that we’d both need to become adept at juggling to make sure our son was always at the top of our agenda.

This often meant handing him over to each other at airports as one of us arrived back from a trip and the other was leaving, but one of us was always there.  I’ve no doubt this approach helped me maintain momentum in my career, and neither did it impinge on my husband’s progress.

International Women's Day 2019
Cannings Purple CEO Annette Ellis spoke at an International Women's Day event hosted by Fraser Suites and Sandalford Wines. Photo: Anthea Auld.
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Invest in a high return

Some of what we read today will focus on the benefits to our economy of encouraging more women back to the workplace after they start a family.  But the returns don’t always stack up.  A young couple, friends I caught up with recently are doing it tough.  They have two young boys and spend more on early child-care than they do on their mortgage.  No doubt they aren’t alone

For them, the long game, and the benefits that two professional parents can deliver for their family is more important than the short-term pain. But they are still more fortunate than the many families for whom the cost of child care just makes it prohibitive for mums to return to work, and for dads to give up essential income and be equal carers.

If we applied just a modest investment to leverage our existing social infrastructure, the returns for our economy would be immense.  How about adding a handful of classrooms and qualified early-education carers to all of our public schools, and easing the red-tape around home-industry caring models?  There are so many simple measures to help reduce practical barriers to returning to work.

These should be a higher priority for government and society at large in the gender equality conversation.

Flex is the muscle

When I joined Cannings Purple more than a decade ago, it very quickly became apparent that I couldn’t care for my son, then in Year 3, and put in the face time that was expected.  And so I broached the subject of flexible face time.  There was initially a conversation around sacrificing benefits in return for reduced hours, but I wasn’t asking for reduced hours, I was asking for reduced hours in the office.  These are not the same thing.

I suggested a trial period during which my salary would remain the same, but I’d arrive at work by 9am, and leave by 2:30, and make up my billable hours outside of this time.  My revenue generation and contribution to the team didn’t lessen, it increased.

I’m grateful for the trust and the vision shown by our MD and founding director, Warrick Hazeldine who allowed the trial to be proven successful.  One of his favourite lines is: “From little things, big things grow.”  This has been very true for our firm in terms of workplace flexibility.

Today when I look around the Cannings Purple offices, we’ve grown from that team of eight to a team of 40, and in addition to me being CEO, our National Director is a woman and five of our nine Directors are female, as is our Chief Innovation Officer.

These women earned their positions on merit but as a company we’ve also put in place flexible workplace practices designed to give all our staff every possible chance to develop their careers.

We encourage all our staff to structure their working lives around family commitments.  Both mums and dads have the freedom to do school pick-ups and drop-off as required, some work three or four days a week and we’ve also recently introduced optional nine-day fortnights and 11-month contracts aimed at providing the best possible work-life flexibility.

We were early adopters of workplace flexibility and our options continue to evolve well ahead of the pack. This said, flexible face time is the new normal, and any workplace that doesn’t embrace flexibility isn’t competing on an equal footing for the best talent out there.

Call it out

I fought my first battle with a major mining house when I was 19. The ‘un-equal’ rule I was fighting applied only to women under the age of 21, because this demographic was considered only to be in the workplace to “find a husband”.  I knew the rule was unlikely to be changed in time to benefit me, but I formally challenged it through my union anyway, appreciating that the change would benefit every woman under the age of 21 who came after me.  I did find my husband there too, so I notched that skirmish up as win.

In my first job interview in Australia in 2008, the family responsibility question was reserved for women. I politely called it out.  Calling something out in this kind of situation may well lessen your chance of getting the job, as it did for me in that instance, but we all have the ability to choose the calibre of leadership we are willing to work with, and choice is a powerful thing.

I’m forever grateful I didn’t get that role, and had the opportunity instead to join and influence a much more enlightened workplace.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I wish all working women a smooth journey along their career paths, and equal choices and support for men and women in their life choices.  While the figures published today paint a picture of inequality still, on a positive note, they are as bad as they will ever be, and better than they’ve ever been.

Annette Ellis is Cannings Purple’s Chief Executive Officer and has more than 25 years’ experience in corporate communications. She is a specialist in reputation management, crisis communications, change management and stakeholder relations.

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