Status Quo Challenge: How to break away from the pack to lead it

November 22, 2017

A Conversation Club: Expert Insights event with Anna Green, Partner and Managing Director, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Georgette Nicholas, CEO and Managing Director, Genworth Mortgage Insurance Australia:

The fourth of four “In conversation” articles from two of Australia’s pre-eminent businesswomen.


CC: How much has gender disparity impacted on you personally in your own career?

Georgette: I started out in public accounting. It is a pretty male dominated field. When I first started my career, I remember the manager asked me to pick his shoes out of the catalogue for Christmas. And I remember thinking “Really?” But again, you have choices at that point. And I just decided: “No, I am not going to do that.” You start early making a stand and that is not always easy. But I think that you pick your battles as you go along. It is important to know that you can’t fight everything. You need to know what you are willing to accept and know that that is just how it is, but what are you willing to go into battle for?

So I think that there will be bias out there. It is what you do with it. And that is what you have some accountability for, to make sure that you are not letting it knock you down and that you are doing things to move into that next level.


CC: Anna, has there been many times when you think that being female has made your career more difficult?

Anna: Yes and no. It has put more challenges in front of me. Certainly, when I was more junior. One example was that as a young consultant coming into BCG. I started when I was 23, I got put on projects to do the org and change sides of the project and was never given the Quant modules. And it took time before I thought that: “I’m really being pigeon-holed.” We’ve got the men over here being given the complex Excel-modelling and they’d always put me on the psych side or dealing with difficult stakeholders. So, I had to be quite assertive. I thought, I am going to become quite senior and never have any exposure to the complex quantitative side. We are much more aware of that now. It just does not happen. We do not pigeon-hole people. It forced me to be quite aware of these things.


CC: Anna, does BCG do research on pay gaps?

Anna: We do. Like at most professional services firms, if you are employed at a certain level, you are paid the same but the bonuses are different. We review our bonuses and we check very carefully for our own gender bias.

Georgette: We do the same thing.


CC: Have women been too passive in pushing for more in terms of consideration for a promotion or a salary increase?

Anna: I am constantly amazed at how significant the gender differences are in so many ways. We do this other global report, called “People Advantage.” It’s about human resources reporting and is not gender driven at all. Someone in the firm looked at what would happen if we cut the numbers by men and women, which is quite an obvious thing but something we hadn’t done as it is not the focus (of the report). It was really interesting. We asked all these questions around ambition. And there are all these myths on women being less ambitious or that women’s ambition drops off when we have children etcetera. What our report shows, and 200,000 is not a bad sample size, is that there was so much more variability around ambition between companies than there were between men and women. What we could see from the data was that there was no difference in ambition between men and women, other than the difference in companies where there was low engagement. Within high performing companies, there was no difference in terms of women and ambition and also no difference between women who had children and women who did not. And what this says to me, in terms of what women can do to have a successful career, is to find a company that nurtures your ambition as opposed to one that really damages your ambition.


CC: How do you find a company that does that? In your 30’s and 40’s it’s not about remuneration, it is about longevity. Have you both been with your employers for long times?

Anna: 17 years.
Georgette: 12 years today!


CC: There are a lot of women at this event who are lawyers. When you are busy working as lawyers or management consultants with their time obligation to produce – how can they make a space to say – wait a minute – promote me?

Georgette: I think that as you think about your career, 30-40 is pivotal. But you have to be thoughtful that you are making good choices during that time so that when you come back (from parenting or other leave), you need to make sure that people understand that ambition is still there and that you want to move up and that you want to be a partner or a CEO. You have to focus on yourself and make sure that you are communicating that ambition and desire to play a part and then help find those opportunities.
Many times in my career I have observed people saying, “No, I can’t do that because I have personal commitments.” I’ve always said, “tell me more about that opportunity.” I find that the more that you learn about it; the easier it is to find a solution that works for both parties. You should participate in the discussion and often you can negotiate for something different. But we are reluctant sometimes as women to have that discussion and to start that dialogue.


CC: So what I hear is to be more fearless in having our communication, approach your management more often and have discussions about not your job but your ambition. The idea is that if you are going to leave the firm to have children or have other needs for flexibility, you need to build goodwill. But what is goodwill?

Georgette: I think sometimes it is keeping up certain skills. Sometimes that may be hard, and I don’t propose it’s easy. Technology is another example. You can make sure that you stay connected. And as a company, we also have a responsibility. To make sure that we are helping people when they are out to stay connected, whether that is technology, training or doing some type of courses that allows them to feel connected and keep developing skills. That’s the other piece of the programme. It’s not just about leave, it’s about what do you do when you are gone. Some people say when they take time off, they don’t want to talk to the company at all. And that is fine. But if the company is offering things, figure out if you can take advantage of it because I think it puts you in a better position.


CC: Is it different in the US and UK in terms of how corporates deal with gender diversity?

Anna: The report was launched in Australia first, then the UK followed, then various other countries and the US was the last to launch a few months ago. And there are very few differences. The findings were almost identical in terms of the nature of the issues in terms of what doesn’t work or work, in terms of people’s discipline. There is some truth that there is something that you can’t solve overnight and you’ve got to put a lot of investment in and it’s got to be something that is led from the top and it needs to have people demonstrating and making things that work in practice.


CC: What should we be advising our daughters regarding what they should be choosing to study, given the propensity for boardrooms to be filled with people with financial, banking, legal or accounting backgrounds – and with so many women choosing “softer areas of study – like PR and HR?

Georgette: I think it is having a good technical skill set. If you end up in either human resources or communications, how do you supplement that? I went the other way. I was an accountant and went into investor relations because I wanted the communications side, the marketing skill set that I didn’t have from my technical accounting perspective. How do you get some of those skills and balance them out. And some of it is asking, “How do you provide value” in calculating them up. HR is extremely important. What we are talking about today, a lot of it get’s driven from the HR perspective. And the communication of that is hugely important. Sometimes, as women we underestimate the impact that we can have in those fields. Yes, I am a believer in the foundation and the technical skills and talking about the numbers. That gives you fluidity. We do get judged harder about that. So, taking that off the table allows you to influence other things.


CC: Do you still have sponsors and mentors?

Anna: I still have sponsors and mentors. But they are naturally there, in terms of whom I work for and with and whom I have worked with over time with and there are structures in BCG where there are formal sponsors and so on.

Georgette: Absolutely. I talk with them about when is the right time to make transitions.


CC: Do you still think about where you want to be in 5 years time?

Anna: I am a fairly relaxed person. I like be open to where the journey can take me and I stay open to “where next,” not in terms of leaving BCG, but more in terms up picking up different roles. I lead our global media sector – and I thought that would be a terrible idea to do so from Australia – but I’ve loved it and it gives me the chance to work on topics that I am passionate about..

Georgette: I don’t know if I have a plan of where I want to be in the next five years. It is being open to opportunities. I have views on what I like to do, where I’d like to have an impact and being open to the potential to where that might lead. I am a great believer in when one door closes another one opens, so you have to find out where that door might be.

Before you go!