Catherine Brenner, former AMP chairman
Catherine Brenner

News from the front desk Issue No 387: If you were a woman edging into the vast exhibition space of the International Convention Centre in Sydney’s Darling Harbour last week, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d entered pretty much a man’s world.

There was a scattering of females at the huge biannual ARBS event for the heating, cooling and associated industries, but not many.  (To be fair according to AIRAH chief executive Tony Gleeson the industry not only struggles to attract women, it struggles to attract young people, who fail to see the variety and technically challenging nature of the work.)

The aligned Women of AIRAH breakfast on Wednesday morning across the water at Darling Park, however, was much more encouraging.

On stage to lead a discussion on how women were faring in an industry that clearly struggles to attract women were: Katherine Hammack, executive director – government and public sector, Ernst & Young LLP in the US, but previously a lead operator in the US defence forces; Stuart Fowler, chief executive, Norman, Disney & Young; and Liza Taylor, chief executive and co-founder of Global IQ Group and a member of the AIRAH board.

The discussion was right on the money.

Gender bias is back in the headlines. After the women on the board of AMP were all dismissed, or made to dismiss themselves, following a litany of financial scandals, the talk in the mens’ rooms – and maybe a few womens’ rooms in the corporate towers – has been how to “make good” what has clearly been ripped apart by political correctness.

It’s the same question that delivered the election result in the US and growing number of other places as some people feel displaced by the rising up of others who they fear are more talented or disruptive than themselves, and who certainly weren’t there last time they glanced around the ladder.

Former prime minister John Howard is even fronting an audience on the problem of what he calls “self-appointed cultural dieticians,” and his concern that political correctness silences dissenting opinions.

But then Howard led the battle cry against political correctness in this country an eon ago.

What’s more concerning is the gnashing of teeth about positive discrimination. And of course this embraces positive discrimination of any sort, based on race, disability or sexual orientation.

When a group has been suppressed for some time, and rises up the ladder of success it’s a matter of physics that someone else on the ladder slips off.

If you can’t make a bigger ladder or more ladders you‘ve probably got a problem on your hands.

On the corporate issue, we posted some comments about The AFR’s now multiple mentions of a shareholder at the AMP annual general meeting asking in relation to new board selections: “Which consideration will take priority – gender or ability?”

Our mention of this elicited strong responses: well what’s the answer? Gender or ability? A litany of commentators said ability should trump gender. Every time.

We wondered were these questions asked after the GFC when a plethora of male directors and global leaders threw much of the western world over a cliff? Let’s ask now, were these men hired strictly on ability? Or because of their gender or other forms of positive discrimination such as their membership of the mates’ club or the old school network? Maybe they were selected on their ability to be fair and equitable and conscionable. But if you believe that, you probably believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden. Maybe instead they were selected for their ability to make money as fast as they can without much regard for consequences.

One respondent on the social media platform came to our defence on gender: who’s evaluating ability? Maybe the evaluation of ability is itself gender-biased. It was a man speaking. Thank goodness.

An even bigger question is why is it that when women fail, their failure is judged on a gender basis but when men fail it’s because they’re human. Think all the excuses used to “explain” domestic violence or mass murder by men such as in WA recently. So are these commentators saying women don’t experience the same pressures?

So let’s turn to the boardroom, that nursery and breeding ground for bad behaviour. Is that biased? Well, let’s look at the state of the planet – the decisions to keep burning coal; to keep feeding our population with too much sugar and cheap fats; to use too much fossil fuel-derived packaging, to use poisonous or dangerous materials in our buildings; to ignore science and keep building on flood plains. Is this the behaviour of ethical, sane, rational people who abide by a sense of responsibility to their fellow humans?

Nope, at too many boardrooms it’s all about #MeFirst #MoneyFirst.

Who said that shareholder interests should come above the interests of customers or other stakeholders? Someone recently told us there is no such law (legal eagles, some free advice would be welcome here.)

So many people are now saying that women directors have failed as a concept because some of them got it wrong and behave just as badly as the men.

One: we’ve been told you can’t change the gender culture until at least 30 per cent of the people in the group are women (why only 30 per cent is mystifying; that’s still a minority) and two: why is it that the male dominated leadership is not threatened as a concept when men fail at their jobs?

AMP chairman Catherine Brenner was a self-seeking crazily ambitious woman intent on getting to the top, if you believe some of the profiling coming out now about her, but then we bet you could say that about a lot of men.

The issue goes to other minorities too. Why expect because some people are in a minority or oppressed that this means they will be saintly or perfect in any way at all?

By Tuesday morning an academic was in the papers, saying there was no evidence that diversity on boards improved performance. It was Professor Peter Swan from the University of NSW who said there is no evidence that diversity creates better performance, contradicting some widely held views.

Research from Wharton seems to confirm that while studies from consultants such as McKinsey have shown improved performance from diversity, more rigorous peer-reviewed studies show neither negative or much positive impact; the positive minute at best.

Subtext to that: let’s give the idea away.

Confession time: We were always suspicious of using this as the reason to give women equal access to running the joint. Much better was the reason we heard given by one leader in the Male Champions of Change for his involvement in the program: “because it’s the right thing to do.”

Likewise the misguided notion driven by our dominant economic paradigm that we should measure and price all the benefits of sustainability, including the value of clean air and water and the value of the planet itself.

For a while a lot of we planet aficionados went for the concept because it seemed the only way to get the rusted on economic rationalists to listen to the need to preserve the framework that allowed them to make money.

After all they run the legal system and the governments and make all the laws, so better to speak their language.

So give the alpha kids their lolly pops and hope they will behave nicely at the party and not bully the other kids.


After a while, it became clear that in the absence of a Planet B, we needed to preserve this one at any cost. Putting a price on the water that gives us life suddenly seemed stupid and a waste of time. What are we going to do, just give up because it costs too much to live?

This is the kind of thinking that says, “Oh you know, getting rid of carbon emissions and asbestos and volatile organic compounds and unsafe cars with no seat belts is just too expensive, it will cost jobs. Let’s not.”

Same with women and other diversity agendas. And please let’s use equality for women as a metaphor for equality of all marginalised and diverse groups, huh?

It’s all together now, complex systems thinking. Same boat. Same planet.

L-R: Stuart Fowler, Katherine Hammack, Liza Taylor

At the AIRAH breakfast Katherine Hammack told the audience she became involved in promoting events for women at ASHRAE because of the clear demand.

She also cited the diversity argument, that companies with diversity will outperform and out innovate those who are more homogenous. But even with the new arguments that contradict the smaller consultants’ studies the big issue is the rights of women to participate.

Were women judged to a higher standard than men?

Undoubtedly, Hammack said.

We think other factors come into play. For instance, a diversity target that is still in the minority will mean it will be really hard to shift the majority thinking unless you are social influencing genius or have the Alpha gene.

Men with minority views face the same issues. One very senior executive of a large bank quipped after one of the biggest property crashes that of course he could see the train smash coming but “try telling that to a board at a time when you’re making huge profits and your competitors are doing the same.”

Key to this is that the big missing ingredient that would eliminate the problem with being in a minority and being heard for your rational arguments is respect.

As Hammack said, that’s key. I f women don’t feel respected they leave, she said. If you’re a company that cares about performance we reckon you need to care about any talented staff that leaves – gender, ethnicity, sexual bias or disability notwithstanding.

For NDY’s Stuart Fowler his support of the Male Champions of Change program to promote women in the built environment had a very personal starting point, when he realised his three adult daughters might be discriminated against.

“I didn’t want them to ever be in a workforce where they were discriminated against or held back simply because of their gender, or paid inequitably simply because of their gender,” he said.

Another reason was more practical – the people his company designs for are ultimately 50 per cent women, so it made sense to have women as key to the design process.

Jenny Smith, Ura Sarfejoo, Jo Piggott and Katherine Hammack

“I encourage everyone to look around their own businesses and organisations and acknowledge the challenges we have, and to call out the apathy and acknowledge we really do have an issue.”

Knowledge is power he said, and key for him was to embrace the Male Champions of Change and “the fantastic work” that Megan Motto, CEO Consult Australia had done with the program.

“All too often as engineers we are highly competitive but in this case we are very pleased there is a great deal of sharing going on.”

Global IQ’s Liza Taylor said diversity was a broad issue and linked to stepping outside our comfort zone, especially at a time of unprecedented challenges from technology and artificial intelligence. Humans still had the potential be creative, she said, and this was more important than ever.

We all needed to push ourselves out of our comfort zone because that’s where magic happens,” she said.

“The engineers of tomorrow will be more than just technical; they will need to have those soft skills and ways of influencing the industry and customer.

“We need leaders to think differently. When people feel safe and valued, great things happen.”

And creating a safe place for diversity is clearly part of the story.

Join the Conversation


Your email address will not be published.

  1. Thanks so much for coming along to the breakfast Tina. I’ve been pondering this issue for a long time. Someone once made the analogy of rather than looking at a career journey as a ladder, think of it more as a cargo net. I think the same analogy works well here. If we all work together to help each other up the cargo net, we can all win. I’ve always had an issue with tokenism, and was luke warm for a long time supporting about supporting a “Women of AIRAH” group. Then a few years ago Nathan Groenhout and I went to ASHRAE and met their inspiring women of ASHRAE group. This is where we first met Katherine. They had a wonderful breakfast that we were invited to and we looked at each other and said “we gotta steal this idea”.
    Another lightbulb moment meeting Narelle Hooper at Greencites, and buying her book – New women, New Men, New Econcomy. Everything dropped into place about how we need both men and women bringing their different attributes to the table, conversation, problem, whatever. I’m looking forward to exciting times and working with brilliant human beings.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Phil about something that can be so easily contentious and is probably more “out there” for us than usual. The problem for me is that people think positive discrimination or diversity targets is just ideology that goes against the “logic” of choosing the “best man/woman for the job”. What’s hard to appreciate is another person’s perspective, that people so many times are promoted beyond their apparent ability but then magically “grow into the job” because they’re given a chance. We’re trying to get systemic change and that’s tough for people who never signed up to be a bigot and are now being marginalised by the changes underway. I got feedback on Linked in from a man who said he is now in his early 60s and hasn’t been able to get back into a job since his 50s, beaten every time by people from minority groups that were once marginalised. (Maybe like women they’ve had to try harder, or maybe bosses want to signal they are PC so they attract the best talent even if it’s not wrapped up in old paradigms.) What happens to people who once sailed through life in good schools, good education and a good retirement is a serious issue; they should not be left behind either. I love your idea of a cargo net. So that means changing something fundamental, right? Which at its heart is what all this is about, including sustainability. Getting rid of the ladder, bringing everyone with us. We’re in transition and no one knows how best to do it yet.

  2. I hate gender bias and racial bias. I hate it so much that i believe any form of identification on this basis is wrong. We are all human. Stop identifying humans by sex or race and the problem will slowly go away.
    The problem with some AMP board members is that they were underqualified and performed poorly. Whatever their sex move them on.
    And do the same to other membrrs of boards or government who do badly.
    Note that women are the majority of voters, blame them for the governments they elect.