Overcoming the challenge of getting buy-in for gender balance and dealing with the backlash.

Russ Austin Tronox Australia's managing director was recently joined by Chief Executive Woman Dr Vanessa Guthrie, Tronox Australia's board member as our co-facilitator to host a CEO Roundtable.

As a CEO for Gender Equity, Russ Austin was particularly interested in hearing and sharing with other CEOs in Western Australian, the stories of what had not worked, that is, the “bad news stories” – when plans and initiatives simply did not work.

Talking about these experiences may feel like admitting weakness or being too exposed, however they can be the best opportunities to share and learn from our mistakes.

We know that the business case for gender equity is compelling and irrefutable - there is a bottom line benefit linked to increased female participation.

Nevertheless, gaining buy-in at all levels of the business is often challenging. Not everyone has bought into the "it's good for business" message.

Tronox Australian has increased its female participation rate from 18% to 22% over the last four years.

These statistics and some of the success stories within however only tell half of the story, that is, the statistics do not show how difficult it is to achieve a 4% increase whilst trying to transform at the pace that we as leaders want to.

Backlash - what is it?

Male Champions for Change have defined backlash as:

a negative reaction to social or political change.
In recent times, there has been particular backlash driven by the perception that focus on gender equality initiatives and the promotion of women to leadership roles is unfair and not meritocratic. These mindsets and behaviours can exist at all levels of an organisation – from graduate to senior executive level, both men and women. Negative responses often surface when individuals fear personal impact or the status quo has changed.

In recognising, understanding and responding to backlash within the workplace, CEOs were invited to share how they had (or had not) navigated the sometimes difficult journey that pursuing gender balance presents, as "visions became plans and plans were implemented".

Dealing with resistance and the resistors.

The recurring themes and strategies that emerged in dealing with resistance were:

Strengthening the business case

Re-framing gender equity as a business-issue, not just a women's issue strengthens the business case.

Strengthening the business case for gender equity also requires aligning and supporting complementary gender equity initiatives, that bring benefits to women and to men, because it is good for business.

Supporting front line managers

The 'frozen middle' where most transformation and change initiatives falter or accelerate need ongoing support to engage with resistance, that is, to be supported in articulating and translating the benefits to teams.

Connecting teams' day to day work to the business case for gender equity is a key messaging strategy for front line managers.

Recruiting male champions

Some CEOs observed that those men that resisted change the most were also fearful of having to change their behaviours and language at work if women were in their teams.

One CEO referred to his "rookie error" at the beginning of his gender equity journey, relying on women to call out inappropriate behaviours;

I was solely relying on women within my business to champion the change. I quickly realised that I needed male champions to call it out.

Re-designing work

One of the leaders observed that her workplace was very male-dominated 10-15 years ago. She credits the shift to a more balanced workforce to re-designing traditional work.

That is, in accommodating health and safety requirements combined with an ageing workforce, those jobs that traditionally required physical force and effort and traditionally done by men, have been made safer via automation.

Increasing flexibility so teams could 'take time out' for unpaid work such as caring for elderly parents and children was also a game changer.

No longer were requests for time-off viewed as a problem where increasing workplace flexibility was encouraged as a way of doing business, whilst meeting our needs and their family needs.

CEO Commitments

In closing the CEO Roundtable, CEOs were asked to make a commitment that would improve gender balance within their workplace.

For those more mature on the gender equity journey, commitments focussed on persisting with increasing their goal of achieving 30% female participation at all levels, including senior levels. CEOs agreed to continue telling the why for gender equity and the business benefits that increased female representation will bring, as well as recruiting more men to champion changes in the workplace.

For those at the beginning of the journey, commitments focussed on achieving some early wins by simply making it a focus.

Most CEOs also made a commitment to normalise gender equity, given traditional workplaces have unintentionally normalised entrenched discrimination and gender stereotypes for some time.

In normalising gender equity to increase its acceptance in the workforce, CEOs made commitments to increase the acceptance of workplace flexibility and paid parental leave amongst men also in their workplaces.

CEOs for Gender Equity convenes monthly CEO Roundtables.
These roundtables are unique, intimate and in-depth conversations hosted and convened by a CEO for Gender Equity to inspire and influence commitment with more CEOs in Western Australia to get #genderontheagenda.

Reference: The Jane Walker and Johnny Walker campaign that created 'misunderstanding' and backlash.


Tania Cecconi

Since 2016, I have been thrilled to work with CEOs for Gender Equity as its inaugural executive director. Working with progressive CEOs my goal is to turn the dial in Western Australia. My job is to help them lead the transformation of their workforce by eliciting and sharing their stories of what works and doesn't work to drive and improve gender equity further.