Some 600 financial services folk gathered tonight in the Westin ballroom to hear from Penny Wong, Federal Minister for Finance and Deregulation and a stellar panel, including company director Carolyn Hewson and Adam Spencer, ABC702 host and panel moderator.
The Deutsche-sponsored event heard from one of the bank's senior executives who readily conceded the bank's own gender outcomes remain disappointing, cited recent better results on ASX boards as an example of what can be achieved and called out 69 of the top 200 ASX listed companies who still do not have a single female director.
Keynote speaker Penny Wong, a self-described supporter of women in banking and finance, talked of bringing together women and men to achieve equality.
A simple idea, said Wong, and one that we'd not have thought was an issue in 2011. Improvements have been made said the Minister, but the job remains largely unsolved.
The statistics are depressing, including the fact that in finance and banking (Australia) less than four percrent of CEOs are female.
It's one thing to talk about it, and another to make it happen, says Wong. And yet it's essential to our nation.
With a backdrop of economic change, and an aging population, there is a real need to increase workforce participation - and to encourage more women into the workforce, said the Minister.
This is a nation with a long standing commitment to equality...and yet there must be reasons women are not getting through the ranks. How do we say to young women "gender will not be an impediment?" asks Wong.
Particularly when implicit norms make it hard for women to participate equally.
In the face of 13 per cent female board membership, how can we continue to say merit is the issue?
Government can also help, perhaps via the right forms of assistance. Board appointments are particularly key, says Wong. So how can government help? Perhaps by providing qualified women with their first board position. With opportunity, women will develop the skills needed to progress up the ranks.
Carolyn Hewson cited her personal experiences of struggling with childcare and work commitments, and her belief that we are finally, and slowly, doing better.
"I used to make excuses. Now with over 55 per cent of graduates being women - for over a decade - there are no excuses left" said Hewson.
So globally who is winning? Norway because they mandated 40 per cent minimum of any gender on boards. From a CEO point of view the US probably does the best. Former communist nations can be the surprising winners, thanks in part to state-sponsored childcare said Deutsche's head of diversity.
What of the business case? Companies with a greater number of women on their executive committee have, according to one study, a 40% greater return on equity said Hewson.
So to some answers...
- Male role models who take parental leave
- Flexible childcare..perhaps a nanny culture similar to Europe or Asia
- Don't internalise the risk, says Wong - sometimes women don't put themselves forward because the environment has taught them not to
And simply focus on how women are hired, promoted and retained says the Deutsche global head of diversity.
In concluding her opening address Wong shared a comment her younger sister made about their father. Taken to heart in more Australian homes it would perhaps result in better outcomes for the next generation of capable Australian women.
"He never wanted less for me than he did of his sons." And so it should be for all women.
I attended the 2011 Women in Banking and Finance Annual Forum as a guest of independent corporate advisory firm Pottinger.