A United Nations initiative recently awarded Andrew Thorburn, CEO of Bank of New Zealand (BNZ), with a leadership award in the category of ‘benchmarking for change’ for his success in promoting gender equality within his organisation.
BNZ’s ‘gender equality strategy’ was implemented in 2010 when Thorburn identified improving gender equality as one of his business’s top three priorities. While the organisation boasted good policies around parental leave and assisting women returning to work, the bank’s culture needed work, according to Annie Brown, head of engagement.
There is an abundance of excellent research pointing to the business benefits of having women in senior leaderships, Brown noted. “This isn’t about women in roles to get the numbers up, this is about having really savvy, diverse-thinking women who can add to the debate and decision-making that happens at that board and senior management,” she said.
BNZ’s strategy involved raising awareness and understanding, internal research into barriers for women, identifying talented women, improving recruitment, and establishing the pan-bank diversity council. Brown called the first of these ‘key’, presenting the issue as a matter of keeping pace with New Zealand’s changing demographics.
The research that BNZ conducted into barriers to women’s career progression wasn’t revelatory, but it was useful in what it reaffirmed. “We interviewed a select group of leaders [both men and women] … in the bank and we really drilled into this area,” Brown said. The issues that emerged included a lack of leadership commitment, systemic barriers, old boys’ networks, and unclear career pathways for women.
Identifying talented women employees was another piece of the puzzle – the organisation identified a ‘seepage’ at middle management level. “My absolute focus was to find those gems of women in our middle management of our bank right across all business units and focus programmes around career development,” Brown explained.
In terms of recruitment, BNZ didn’t shy away from setting targets for women candidates. They decided to focus on the senior leadership team initially and now every role at BNZ must have women candidates on its short list.
Finally, Brown emphasised the importance of the pan-bank diversity council, which shifted the responsibility of the strategy away from HR to the whole business. “Their role was to be almost the guardian of what we were doing in this whole work around diversity and to champion and role model … in their business unit that they represented,” Brown said.
And the results? BNZ has gone from having one woman on its executive team to four, which is almost half of the nine members. In addition, while BNZ’s subsidiary boards once had six percent female membership, they now have 27%. While there are only two directors on the BNZ board, this is partly a result of the fact that directors are on tenure and membership hasn’t shifted much in the past three years. “[But] they’re absolutely committed to diversity and to gender balance and equality,” Brown said.
Key HR Takeaway – Brown’s recommendations for other organisations:
“Find out what really are your barriers and what really is your issue in the business. Understand that and make sure your leaders understand that.”
From there, ensure that the issue is included in the business agenda and plan what needs to be done.
Set targets and ‘relentlessly’ monitor and report on what is happening in terms of recruitment and career progression. “Don’t be shy of doing the targets it actually does make a difference.”
“Communication and stories around what you’re doing in this space are absolutely key.”
Establish women’s networks to empower women to help each other.