The Everests that women will still conquer

By Harley Dennett

March 6, 2018

As Australia prepares to host the Global Summit of Women – dubbed the “Davos for women” – what do policymakers still need to know about the advancing women’s opportunities? Irene Natividad shares her leadership lessons.

  • ‘Stellar’ female candidates for UN Secretary General couldn’t break that glass ceiling.
  • Don’t like quotas? ‘Get over it!”
  • Women entrepreneurs should be government priority.

When Irene Natividad opens the Global Summit of Women in Sydney this April as its long-time president, she’ll begin with a message: no whinging – because women have already achieved great things in parts of the world with no structural or cultural support.

Imagine what can be achieved with policymakers and the corporate world backing women too?

When there aren’t women in leadership, you’d be surprised how often that question doesn’t get asked, says Natividad. Nor a lot of other questions.

“The nice thing about being on a board is you get to ask questions that maybe nobody ever asked before,” Natividad tells The Mandarin. When she joined the board of Sallie Mae, a Fortune 100 company, she asked management for the pay packages of senior men and women at least several tiers of management down from the top. There was disquiet at the request, but she insisted. “If we’re serious about succession planning, we should know. Nobody ever asked it.”

Many have speculated why studies have shown that companies with the largest market capitalisations have the highest proportion of female board members. Whether it be more diverse skills, or a different approach to risk-taking, there’s also the risk that male-only boards can lose touch with their customers. Natividad questioned why in all Sallie Mae’s charitable giving, there was not one women’s organisation on the list. “I asked, what is this garden club thingy? One of the VPs was active on it. But the majority of our loan holders are women, what message are we sending if we don’t support the groups that they’re part of?”

If you do get an opportunity, and you do rise to leadership, you don’t have to be an activist, she says, just a responsible leader. “We hope that by getting women on to corporate boards, they will look to do something about what those companies are doing, or not doing, with regards to where women are.”

Make it a priority, not a guilt trip

Last week, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop talked up the percentage of women on Commonwealth government boards (47%) steadily rising towards the 50% target. But she shied away from the word ‘quotas’.

It’s still a dirty word to many, Natividad acknowledges, as many women don’t want to be seen to be reaching leadership positions through mandatory gender quotas. “Get over it!” was her blunt message to any woman who felt guilty.

“You can’t change what you can’t measure, that’s why it’s so important to have goals, targets, quotas … whatever you call it. If you don’t, it just becomes this amorphous thing of ‘we’ll eventually get there if all the signals are right’ … well it didn’t happen.”

Bring out the entrepreneurs

After speaking with Bishop, Natividad notes there is an emphasis on putting women forward by Australia’s government, but says it’s never enough.

More could be done in Australia to encourage women’s entrepreneurship, she says. Noting that small business is an enormous driver of economic growth, yet women represent only 34% of Australia’s entrepreneurs.

Access to capital remains a barrier says Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Kate Carnell. Natividad, noting her Sallie Mae experience, says that’s something can be solved.

“Pushing banks, as well as their own [government] spend, such as spending quotas or targets on including women entrepreneurs in the supply chain – that’s an easy one, frankly, but needs to get done.”

Get more women entrepreneurs on trade missions too, she recommends, so they can explore other markets.

The big achievement still to come

While many women were heartbroken that Hillary Clinton did not break the United State’s highest glass ceiling, there are many other high profile public service roles that women are still shut out from. Notably, the list includes the UN Secretary General.

Outgoing Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said it was “high time” for a female to lead the United Nations, after eight male leaders over 70 years. But the push failed, and Antonio Guterres from Portugual emerged as the next leader.

“We tried, oh we tried,” Natividad says. “A lot of women’s groups pushed for, and there were terrific candidates.

“I couldn’t understand why none of them were good enough.”

They included Irina Bokova and Kristalina Georgieva, both from Bulgaria, Vesna Pusić from Croatia, Christiana Figueres from Costa Rica, Natalia Gherman from Moldova, Susana Malcorra from Argentina, and the local favourite, Helen Clark from New Zealand.

“I hope there’s a next time around, and I hope the next time around we have an equally stellar group of women to put forward. This group was unbelievable. They were heads of state, foreign ministers … oh come on, what more do you want?”

While the process is highly political, Natividad notes more women in leadership can help reset the game:

“The rules aren’t ours. We have to learn the game and we are not majority players. That’s why I want more women in leadership roles. So we can call the shots.”

Watch Irene Natividad’s address at the National Press Club last month via the ABC.

Natividad was invited by the Australian government’s Office for Women.

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