Woolworths' Gender Diversity Journey - Our experiences in elevating the representation of women in leadership - A letter from business leaders (2011)

Business woman leader photo - cover of Our experiences in elevating the representation of women in leadership publication

Our experiences in elevating the representation of women in leadership

A letter from business leaders

Woolworths' Gender Diversity Journey

Getting in the game

In 2004, Woolworths began to place increasing focus on gender diversity. The business was in a growth phase and the need for the next generation of talented leaders was obvious. At that time, although women were 55 percent of Woolworths’ workforce, they represented only 16 percent of the top team. The opportunity for and benefits of having more women in leadership were clear.

During that time, effort was placed into understanding the ‘numbers’ at a more granular level than ever before. The team mapped out its talent pipeline in greater detail–from junior to the most senior levels, and across each business. Root causes of why women were not reaching the senior ranks of the company were identified.

To respond to these root causes, a number of new programs were put in place. These included strengthened policies around flexible work and parental leave. Focus was also placed on women’s individual development, with senior women joining CEO mentoring programs run by Chief Executive Women (CEW). Career resilience training was put in place for women lower down in the organisation—to encourage them to continue to aspire to leadership at Woolworths.

As a result of these actions, the proportion of women in senior roles grew from 16 percent in 2004 to 20 percent by 2007.

Getting serious

Michael Luscombe, appointed as CEO in 2006, continued to focus on building Woolworths’ women in leadership. Michael focused the organisation on attracting and retaining talent, and challenged the prevailing view of what a ‘good leader’ at Woolworths was.

The assumption at Woolworths had always been that the best leaders spent 20 years developing technical expertise in a specific area. Michael emphasised that Woolworths needed to have a more diverse talent pool, with leaders who could challenge the status quo, and stay ahead of market and consumer trends. This leadership model would allow more women to be brought into the consideration set for senior roles.

Michael signalled his commitment to this new leadership model, through two promotions of outstanding women leaders to the team top–

Julie Coates (as Head of Logistics, then Head of Big W), and Debra Singh (Head of Consumer Electronics).

Another significant development was the introduction of paid parental leave in June 2008. Through both the key appointments and the paid parental leave, Woolworths signalled its commitment to attracting, retaining and developing talented women. By 2011, the proportion of women in top roles had increased to 27 percent.

Capturing the diversity advantage
2011 and beyond

For incoming CEO Grant O’Brien, attracting and developing leaders who can inject new thinking and energy into the organisation is a core component of his strategy. He believes that leaders must truly understand the evolving needs of customers. Over the last few years, and in a variety of areas, he has seen how talented women leaders can rise to this challenge. He’s seen direct evidence of why diversity in management is important, ‘These leaders give permission to other Woolworths’ employees to act differently. They create an environment where it is more acceptable to challenge the way things are done.’

Momentum has been created, and a culture that values a new style of leadership is cascading throughout the organisation. Even in the more traditionally male dominated areas of the business, such as operations, managers are more regularly appointing women into leadership roles.

This shift in mindsets and behaviours is encouraging. The discussion of gender diversity is now fully integrated into regular talent discussions, supported by a granular view of key drivers—such as sourcing of external candidates, retention and promotion rates.

All of this gives Grant O’Brien the confidence that a further increase in women’s representation in leadership is possible, and that Woolworths will achieve its 2015 goals. ‘It will require focus’, says Grant, ‘however, it’s absolutely the right thing to do for the business. Our culture and performance will be all the better for it’.