Post first appeared on LinkedIn.

Want to move the needle on gender diversity? Think like a disruptor.

Liz Broderick and Andy Penn speak at a Brilliant Connected Women event.
Pictured: Liz Broderick and myself at a Brilliant Connected Women event.

Like a lot of organisations today Telstra spends a great deal of time looking at the impact (real and potential) and the opportunities of digital disruption.

After all, the world is full of examples of where fundamental change is being driven by innovation, technology, and talented disruptors.

In business, this is uprooting command-and-control structures – once the industry standard – and in all of our lives it is bringing exciting changes to how we think, behave, learn, work and live.

It feels like every day existing markets, industries, technologies and process are being replaced with something new, better, more efficient.

What if that type of disruptive thinking was applied to a critical issue like building gender equality and diversity in the workplace? What would that look like?

It certainly doesn’t make sense to use the same thinking and the same opportunities that got us to a position of gender imbalance in the first place, to get out of it!

I wanted to share some thoughts on this topic in the hope they might make a difference:

Cumulative effect of many actions

Innovation and change sometimes comes in flashes of brilliance, sudden light bulb moments. But that’s relatively rare.

More often it is many small intentional and creative actions, iterations piled one on top of another coupled with a real determination to achieve a better outcome.

Telstra continues to develop and roll out many things to build gender equality; some big, some small. Some successful, some not.

The central idea is that if we keep doing the same thing we should expect the same result. That will never work so we’re constantly looking for disruptive new approaches to achieve the change we want.

One of the most important things we have done is change our approach to flexibility in the workplace. We start from the premise every role in the company can be done flexibly if we give our people the tools and connectivity they need to make working away from the office as seamless as being in the office.

I work from home a day a fortnight.

For a company used to a traditional command-and-control structure, All Roles Flex was initially a big challenge, a jump into the unknown. Making it work – and it has worked – has required trust, courage, creativity and a determination to challenge and disrupt the traditional approach. I am convinced we are a better organisation for it.

I also chair a Diversity Council, which includes my entire leadership team. The Council acts as a performance planning forum but it also sends a powerful message to the organisation about the expectations and values of the company’s leadership.

Other actions have included developing mentoring, networking and sponsorship programs, ensuring women are represented on every recruitment list and in every interview panel. We are also committed to the UN’s HeForShe initiative because diversity is a problem for everybody, not just women.

At a personal leve,l we try to keep each other honest with questions like: ‘How do we get more women in the room for major cross-company forums?’ and ‘Why aren’t there enough women on this recruitment shortlist?’.

Collectively these initiatives have not solved our diversity issues but they are making a difference. A big part of this is persistence, resilience, and a determination to keep trying new things at a high tempo. Just like disruptors do.

Top down and bottom up

Innovation and the ideas to disrupt the status quo to drive gender diversity can come from anywhere in the organisation – top down from the leadership team, bottom up from the front line, and everywhere in between.

What matters, though, is having the right culture. Culture is critical because your people need to feel empowered to share their ideas and stories and call out issues. Leaders will never have all the answers and some of the best ideas and freshest thinking will come from deep down in the organisation.

To facilitate the sharing of ideas and stories we use the internal social media tool Yammer.

It gives us the ability to share stories and this is really important because the lived experience of diversity – hardship and achievement, discrimination and determination, exclusion and inclusion – enriches the organisational culture, and feeds change at the grass roots.

Stories put a human face on the change we are trying to make. Like the one about one of our senior lawyers who was able to rearrange his working week to care for his elderly parents long term.

Or the two mothers who are job sharing and supporting each other as they balance motherhood and their careers.

Or the young woman who suffered from a clinical anxiety of crowded spaces and was able to shift her working hours slightly to avoid crowded public transport. The flexibility to do that has changed her life.

There are thousands of stories like these right across our organisation and in a very real way they are at the heart of who we are asa company, the lived experience of our diversity policies and codes of conduct.

Bold ideas and action

Creating change is about bold ideas and it is about action.

That idea was central to a panel discussion I participated in the last week, as part of my commitment to the Male Champions of Change.

The panel included Australia’s former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Liz Broderick. Liz calls gender equality the unfinished business of the 21st century and I completely agree with her.

Liz served as Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner from 2007 to 2015 and among her many activities she is Global co-chair of the Women’s Empowerment Principles Leadership Group, a member of the World Bank’s Advisory Council on Gender and Development and a Partner Co-Director with NATO on Women, Peace and Security.

We both spoke at an internal Telstra networking event run under the banner of Brilliantly Connected Women. It is an event to connect women and men in Telstra who champion gender equality.

In a real sense, Liz has been an innovator and a disruptor for diversity balance, as determined and passionate as any of the digital disruptors that are changing our world.

Like any disruptor she has been undeterred by the scale of the challenge:

  • Undeterred by the fact that women continue to be terribly under-represented in leadership positions. Women account for just 3% of CEOs of Australia’s top 200 companies;
  • Undeterred by the fact women in Australia are paid on average 25% less than men for performing the same work; and,
  • Undeterred by the fact that so many companies seemingly ignore the research that shows more women in leadership fundamentally leads to higher shareholder returns.

Liz says relying on women alone to create change is never going to work because the levers of power are largely held by men. Men need to be bold, courageous and visible in standing with women to create the change we need to see in gender equality. She can count me in.

Don’t get comfortable

At the end of the day, there are no universal or easy answers to the challenge of creating gender quality in the workplace.

But in the same way, digital disruptions are revolutionising our world, there is a need to search relentlessly for better solutions to gender diversity and inclusion.

In a world where change comes from a bias for action and bold ideas, one thing we cannot do is get comfortable. And that might be my take out: if you ever feel comfortable with the work you are doing on gender diversity you should start to worry, because you aren’t trying hard enough.