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Breaking the Bias: Lessons for Leaders

Over the next 24 hours we are sure to be inundated here on LinkedIn by numerous pictures of smiling people with their arms crossed ‘breaking the bias’, the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day.

While this sort of awareness raising is great (and necessary), it’s only the start, not the end of the process. The end of the process of course is genuine equality of opportunity regardless of gender. In the workplace this means that women have the same opportunity for employment, and advancement, as men and are paid the same wage for the same work – this is not the case at the moment, as WGEA (the government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency) which collects and measures the gender pay gap has determined it to currently be 19.6%. That is, for every $1 a man gets paid, a woman gets paid 80 cents for doing the same job.

So, we obviously need change. However, while we can all advocate for change, not everyone has the same power to effect change. Whether you are in a private or public sector institution, the truth is that it is disproportionately organisational leaders who have the power. CEOs and senior managers tend to directly make, or at least indirectly control or influence, almost all hiring, firing and promotional decisions within an organisation. They are also responsible for setting HR policies – hiring policies, leave (including parental leave) policies, flexible working policies, study support policies etc. While a good CEO will take the advice of their Head of HR or Chief People Officer in relation to these issues, the buck (and the decision-making power) ultimately almost always rests with the CEO.

It follows then that if the bias is going to be broken it’s CEOs who will ultimately be the ones who deliver the policies to make it happen. So, what’s the answer?

Well, I certainly don’t have them all, however having inherited a business to run in 2016, and tried to deliver a more flexible and progressive workplace, I feel I have learned a few lessons along the way. Hopefully, these insights might help other people running organisations in our industry, particularly SME’s, who are trying to close their own pay equity gap.

Some context – I work in professional services, in the marketing services sector specifically. I took over management of a successful but traditional market research business in 2016, which has since become a diversified marketing services business providing research, digital transformation, media strategy and planning and digital advertising solutions.

Back in 2016 we were a ‘good’ but traditional small business employer with around 45 permanent staff. Some of the policies back then we thought we ‘couldn’t afford to implement’ because they were ‘things big companies did’ included paid parental leave, study support, visa and relocation support for international transfers, an Employee Assistance Program, and family and domestic violence leave. Working from home was frowned upon, or at least not widely encouraged. And from a permanent headcount of around 50 staff we would have had 5 staff who worked less than full-time.

Reviewing the HR policies we have introduced here at ENGINE since then, we now have:

  • Full workplace flexibility (you can work from wherever you like, whenever you like).
  • The ability to take (up to) 100% of your annual leave allocation at half pay – enabling, for instance, those with school aged kids to cover school holidays much more easily (or allowing other staff to just take more leave for any purpose they desire).
  • We reimburse up to 50% of the costs of further relevant study (encouraging people to continue to learn and expand their skills and earning power throughout their career)
  • We provide visa support to assist with covering the costs and administrative burden for staff transferring from overseas offices. This encourages staff to stay with ENGINE globally for the long term and we have several members of the team here in Australia who started out in our UK business.
  • We provide paid parental leave – 8 weeks of paid leave for mums and dads (or mums and mums or dads and dads) which helps to defray the cost of temporarily leaving the workforce to have a child.
  • We have also provided mentoring opportunities (both internal and external) for young staff and particularly young women with a view to helping staff maximising their career potential.
  • And this year we are introducing 20 days of paid domestic and family violence leave, and extending our paid personal leave allocation from 10 to 15 days per year – specifically to cover menstrual leave, menopause, mental health issues, or just the need to take a mental health break.

I can’t take credit for any of these policies. Each of these initiatives was the result of advocacy from staff seeking the company’s support to provide working conditions that better suited their lives (which goes to show that even if you are not a decision-maker speaking up and advocating for progressive workplace policies is critical to effecting change).

So the question is – what, if any difference, have any of these more progressive policy changes made? How has ENGINE benefited? What has been the cost?

Well, in 2016 across 121 permanent and casual staff, ENGINE Australia overall had a 16% gender pay gap, in 2018 it was 8%, in 2020 6%. Now it is 4%. Over the same period the industry gap has actually increased from 14% to 18%. So, as we have been introducing more progressive workplace policies we have closed the gender pay gap significantly. The proportion of permanent staff who work less than full-time hours has more than doubled from 9% to 20%, suggesting we are better able to meet staff’s preferred work patterns. Women now make up 44% of all ENGINE staff and 45% of our line managers. As a result, our staff retention is excellent, with the average team member staying at Engine for over 8 years! And the costs? Honestly, for all the concerns we originally had as a management team over the financial costs of implementing some of these policies they have turned out to be so small as to be inconsequential – and far outweighed by the commercial benefits of staff retention and reduced churn/hiring costs.

However, while these trends are encouraging, we still have much work to do. While we now pay female professional staff and line managers slightly more than males, on average we pay female senior managers less than males. It is also almost exclusively women who work in part-time roles. And amongst our most senior leaders, women remain somewhat under-represented, comprising one-third of the senior management team. It is also the case that while our cultural diversity at ENGINE is high, we have so far failed to provide meaningful ongoing professional employment to First Nations Australians.

In summary:

  • Awareness raising is great (who doesn’t love a balloon and a morning tea!) and it is essential, but in and of itself awareness raising delivers no change;
  • Changed policies are what make a difference to peoples’ lives at work;
  • However, role modelling the behaviour you want to encourage is also important. It probably helps that our global CEO is female, and that our most senior leaders in Australia work flexibly, including part-time, and take advantage of our flexible leave policies themselves;
  • Listening to what staff want, and empowering those with ‘skin in the game’ to be involved in bringing about change, is critical.

Finally, transparency is also important. Every year on IWD I provide our gender pay gap results to all ENGINE Australia staff (once our WGEA report has been issued). As I said, while I am pleased to see that we continue to make good progress, we clearly still have work to do. I hope and expect that within the next 1 to 2 years we will have completely closed the gender pay gap here at ENGINE. I also expect we will have done more to improve female representation amongst our senior commercial leadership, and to have made progress in employing First Nations Australians in professional positions. Our workforce is highly engaged on this issue so I fully expect them to hold me to account 12 months from now.


Written by Craig Young, Managing Director, ENGINE Australia

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