Alison Watkins is one of only four female CEOs in the top 50 ASX companies. Last night she used her first public speech since taking on the role of Group General Manager at Coca Cola Amatil to urge Australian leaders to act now to ensure those types of odds don’t limit future female leaders.
Speaking to an audience of more than 800 corporate, government and non-profit sector leaders at the Chief Executive Women Annual Dinner in Sydney, Watkins said it is critical to Australia’s economic and social growth that both men and women do more to develop future female talent.
Before Watkins shared her personal story from growing up on a Tasmanian farm to leading a top ASX listed company, New South Wales premier Mike Baird spoke. He said because of his time in business and in politics he is well aware that the “boy’s club” is not a redundant expression. It is alive and well and impedes the progression of female leaders. Baird says it’s time to see it tackled seriously.
Alison Watkins spoke of the personal responsibility she feels to deliver to the next generation of women.
“I feel a strong responsibility to be successful for all the women who will become CEOs in the years to come,” she said. “It is how I will contribute to changing the perceptions of what a female leader is and to the day that will come when ‘female CEO’ doesn’t evoke any particular perceptions at all.”
She urged both men and women to consider their influence in this regard. “It’s the way you are raising your children to understand they can do anything. It’s the role you play as partner and parents, your decision to share the second shift at home,” Watkins said. “It’s the way you make a difference to women in your workplace, the risks you take to create opportunities for them and help them succeed, including in line roles.”
Watkins’ husband played a star role in her speech, reflecting how integral he is and has been to her career. After the birth of their fourth child he left his career and has held the fort on the family front ever since. It is an arrangement that has facilitated her career progression and one that Watkins says has worked well. She did concede however that her mother-in-law was initially a little unsure asking “What will I tell my friends at Bridge my son is doing?”
Watkins, a CEW member, said she has been driven by a determination not to let down those people who took risks and gave her opportunities during her 30-year career which has spanned professional services, board and executive roles.
Before Watkins spoke the President of CEW, Christine Christian, told the room Australians are living through a revolution around the status of women.
“The next generation will look back on everything that has been achieved around gender equality in the past five to 10 years and see it for what it is – nothing less than a revolution in the way the equal participation of women at all levels of society is accepted and supported,” she said. “It is a revolution driven by more women taking on more senior roles, influencing decisions around management of the economy that is having the most profound positive effect on our society.”
Christian said she hopes to look back on the current status quo noting “the 18.2 per cent gender pay gap, the fact there are only seven female CEOs in the ASX top 200” and consign it to history.
The dinner is CEW’s main fundraiser and supports the organisation’s annual program of 16 executive education scholarships for women.
It is a tangible example of what Christian credits as Madeleine Albright’s philosophy that women “have to help each other”. The first female US Secretary of State in 1997 said you can’t sustain being the only woman in the room. Women who succeed, Albright has said, have to be smarter and harder working to get a seat at the table. “There is no other way around it. There is no way of talking your way into or out of things, you just have to deliver,” Albright said of female leaders.
“I joined CEW when I became the first woman in my organisation to be appointed CEO and I realised it wasn’t enough just to climb the ladder of success. When you have climbed that ladder, you cannot simply pull it up behind you,” Christian said.
For almost 30 years CEW has been working to make that a reality for more female leaders. Here’s hoping the current momentum eases their burden significantly in years to come.
BY Georgina Dent