Why Australian business needs another Gail Kelly

Gail Kelly leaves Westpac with women holding 45% of senior leadership roles in the bank. Dean Lewins/AAP

The announcement of Gail Kelly’s departure as Westpac chief executive is a real and symbolic loss for women, many of whom see her as a role model. Women in Australia now make up just 3% of CEO roles in the top 200 companies. It is unlikely this will change any time soon as the pipeline of women coming up the ranks, in terms of numbers, does not look promising.

Kelly is unique as she is seen as a woman who managed to “have it all”. She was chief executive of one of the Big Four banks while being a mother of four children. This combination is a rarity as a woman’s rise to the top often occurs at the expense of having a family.

She is therefore an important role model for many women facing a societal climate that does not value female leadership. A report by Randstad found more than one in four Australian employees believed their employer would choose a male over a female candidate of equal merit, regardless of the gender ratio in their organisation. The findings support the view that people think men make better leaders than women.

Study after study finds organisations do better on both financial and non-financial measures when women are included in executive and board positions. This includes better returns for investors. Yet women are still seen as outsiders for senior leadership roles.

Sadly, many women internalise societal discrimination and see themselves as imposters. The imposter syndrome is hard to break when there are so few female role models and female competence is judged by higher, harder and shifting standards. Society all too often waits for a woman in leadership to fall as proof that women are incompetent, inept or uncommitted.

Most women who make it to the top do so by by tolerating male-dominated cultures and accommodating the dominant style. This means neither setting the cultural agenda nor radically changing the work environment.

For women at the top, family and work remain incongruent. The rhetoric of family-friendly workplaces remains just rhetoric. A landmark study by the Human Rights Commission found 49% of pregnant women and working mothers experienced discrimination both in the corporate world and the public service.

At senior levels, women are more likely to be single and childless. It’s worth noting that neither Australia’s only female prime minister, Julia Gillard, or Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop, the only current female federal cabinet minister, have children.

However, Gail Kelly leveraged her position at the top to change the status of women at Westpac. Under her leadership the target of having women hold 40% of senior management roles at Westpac by 2014 was achieved two years ahead of time. Women now hold 45% of senior management roles at the bank.

Yet while Kelly’s contribution to women’s progress must be lauded, she has been replaced by a man, Westpac executive Brian Hartzer. Whether sustainable cultural change has been achieved is still to be decided.

This will depend on whether Kelly was able to ensure the robustness of Westpac’s succession plan. Will Kelly’s legacy continue enabling women to progress into the C-suite with the potential to step into her shoes? Of the 13 members of the Westpac executive group that Kelly leaves behind, just two are women.

Judging from recent media interviews, it seems Kelly would like to remembered for her contribution to raising the profile of women leaders. This is rather than being remembered as the highest-paid banker in an industry driven by profit.

It is hoped Kelly will continue to make a contribution in her next role. For there is so much work to be done. Indeed, in some domains women are going backwards as evidenced by a widening gender pay gap.

It takes extraordinary resilience and determination to overcome the limited female archetype that places women in a cultural strait-jacket. Gail Kelly is extraordinary in her ability to navigate often hostile male environments and transcend societal limitations to pursue a career at the very top with a family life. She has achieved this through a robust sense of self, good people skills, intelligence, mentoring and some luck.

No doubt Gail Kelly will bring those qualities to her next challenge. She has much to offer post-Westpac.

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