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‘It sends a strong message’: the company where women get promoted while on maternity leave

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In corporate Australia where there are just a handful of female chief executives on the ASX 200, and 13 of the nation’s top company boards still without any women, male chiefs need to push women to climb the corporate ladder.

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Women on company boards

Senior women directors read out the reasons given by male directors for not appointing women to boards. Produced by The Australian Institute of Company Directors.

At PepsiCo in Australia and New Zealand, where five of 11 of the local executive leadership team are now women, chief executive Robbert Rietbroek​ said much had been done to promote women into senior roles.

Rietbroek​ said he recently approached a senior female leader – he did not want to name her – to take on a global director role.  Her initial answer was a firm, no. “She didn’t think she was qualified,” he said.

In its Australia and New Zealand business, women fill about 40 per cent of senior roles. In its Australia and New Zealand business, women fill about 40 per cent of senior roles. Photo: Jessica Shapiro

However, weeks later he went back and suggested it again, listing all the attributes that made her perfect for the role. This time she was convinced. She applied for the job, and now she is one of PepsiCo’s global directors. “She’s doing exceedingly well,” Rietbroek​ said.

Sadly, this scenario is the exception rather than the norm. According to a recent study by Bain & Company and Chief Executive Women, women are more likely to be told to display “more confidence” and to get “more experience” by their managers if they want promotions. The research revealed almost 60 per cent of men were promoted twice or more in the past five years compared with only 41 per cent of females.

Another report by CEW found that propensity to take a risk when appointing a man was higher than when appointing a woman, and often mothers were presumed to be less competent, committed and ambitious, and thereby given fewer opportunities. Comments such as, “she’s great but she’s not ready yet” were among those given when women were turned down an opportunity to move up the ranks.

Rietbroek​ believes companies and their senior leadership need to do more to support womens’ progression. He prefers a voluntary approach rather than mandated quotas.

Women on maternity leave are ableto access training and development and career counselling while they are on leave, so ... Women on maternity leave are ableto access training and development and career counselling while they are on leave, so that there is not a gap in skills when they return to work and/or apply for more senior roles. Photo: Louise Kennerley

At a global level, PepsiCo is still yet to reach 30 per cent women on its board – its 2016 annual report indicated it was close, at 27 per cent. But in its Australia and New Zealand business, about 70 per cent of the company’s sales leadership team are female. Women also fill more than 60 per cent of the research and development team locally, and 40 per cent of senior roles.

Rietbroek​ says this is due to more flexible workplace practices –  “our CFO Andrew Townend drops his daughter to school every Friday so there’s no meetings planned before 10am”. It is also done by supporting families – the company has increased primary carer leave from 12 to 16 weeks, and secondary carer leave from one to two weeks. 

Robbert Rietbroek, CEO of PepsiCo ANZ, believes companies and their senior leadership need to do more to support womens' ... Robbert Rietbroek, CEO of PepsiCo ANZ, believes companies and their senior leadership need to do more to support womens’ progression.  Photo: Peter Braig

And another program allows women in maternity leave to continue to access training and development and career counselling while they are on leave, so that there is not a gap in skills when they return to work and/or apply for more senior roles. “It sends a very strong message … when someone is on maternity leave and gets promoted,” he says, noting that Shiona Watson was recently promoted to chief HR officer while she was on maternity leave.

But across the nation’s largest companies, gender diversity is lacking. The chairman of The Australian Institute of Company Directors, Elizabeth Proust, has previously called for mandated quotas if its voluntary target for 30 per cent women on ASX 200 boards by 2018 is not met.

She didn’t think she was qualified

Robbert Rietbroek​, PepsiCo CEO ANZ

The AICD’s latest gender diversity report, released last week, indicates corporate Australia is unlikely to hit target. The report revealed there are still 13 companies on the ASX 200 that have no female directors and six that have not had a female director in the past two years. Women currently make up 25.4 per cent of ASX 200 directorships. 

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