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Australia's big banks push for gender diversity but stall at leadership level

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Australia's big banks push for gender diversity but stall at leadership level

Australia's biggest banks have made great strides in improving workplace gender equality but still have a way to go in appointing female leaders, according to industry professionals.

The country's financial sector has kept pace with significant improvements among the staff mix at its biggest companies, since a 2017 report by Chief Executive Women, an Australian advocacy group for promoting female leadership, noted that nearly a quarter of the country's 200 largest listed entities have no women in senior management.

According to the Australian government's Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the percentage of female CEOs or heads of business in the finance industry rose to 7.4% in 2018 from 6.1% in 2017.

The CEOs at Australia's top four banks by assets — National Australia Bank Ltd. (NAB); Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. (ANZ); Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA); and Westpac Banking Corp. — are men. Westpac is the only one among the four to have previously had a woman, Gail Kelly, at the helm. Kelly led the bank between 2008 and 2015.

The argument for more female leaders in finance is strong based on a recent S&P Global Inc. report, "The (Financial) Future is Female," which noted that woman could control US$72 trillion of global investible wealth by 2020.

Lisa Gray, formerly group executive of NAB's enterprise services and transformation operations, said banks need to take risks, be more open to developing and supporting potential CEO candidates.

"Not everyone has been a business banker and come up a narrow path for the last 20 years," said Gray, who was in the NAB role from April 2013 to July 2014. She is now CEO of Victoria Funds Management Corp.

"Women with varied experiences and not necessarily strictly from the banking sector, can bring that to a CEO role. [Banks] need to be committed to do that. But it's not intellectually difficult to know what to do."

An example of a woman who has made it to the leadership ranks of a financial services company is Shemara Wikramanayake, who in November 2018 took over as CEO at Macquarie Group Ltd. Wikramanayake joined Macquarie in 1987, to eventually lead its asset management arm, one of the group's fastest-growing and most successful units.

Female leaders wanted

Recruiters in Australia believe banks are addressing gender diversity, with the four largest publicly committing to doing so.

By 2020, CBA hopes to have women appointed to at least 45% of its manager roles or above, and at least 40% of executive manager roles or above. Over the same period, NAB is aiming for gender equality in executive management roles, defined as 40% to 60% of either gender, while ANZ is targeting a 3% increase in female leadership positions to 34.1%. Westpac was the first bank to publicly declare a 50% target of women in leadership roles, which it said it achieved in 2017.

NAB had three women in its 11-person executive leadership team, according to a 2018 report by Chief Executive Women. ANZ had four out of 12, CBA three out of nine and Westpac four out of 13.

"[There's] no doubt [banks] are struggling for diversity at the C-level because they are constantly coming to us asking for capable and high-quality female candidates," said Sung Ho Lee, who leads the New South Wales team at recruiter Michael Page.

Over the past five or so years, Lee added, banks have considering hiring more from outside of the sector, particularly female leaders. They have also improved policies targeting women, especially working mothers, to include more flexible arrangements including working from home and career development programs.

"There are just not enough women at the lower end, with the majority of graduates at entry level being male," Lee said.

John Meehan, associate director of financial services at recruitment firm Robert Walters, said that while most banks are actively hiring more senior women, it remains a "short-sighted" fix. "They need to hire a lot more women at the junior end and that's going to translate in 15 to 20 years' time to a lot more senior female executives," he said.

For Gray, the biggest problem is the high number of company recruiters who pursuing senior candidates who essentially are replicas of the senior staff they already have.

"Often [those] making these appointments look at a narrow definition of the candidates by wanting to be more comfortable with people who look like them or have the same set of experiences," she said.

"There are plenty of very talented women with lots of different experiences that would be very relevant to the CEO role."