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“I’m not a status quo person”

Alum Diane Smith-Gander discusses her most rewarding challenges, reaching 50/50 gender parity in leadership, and how an Aboriginal story recently spoke to her.
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Photo by John Kerr

Two years ago, Diane Smith-Gander (DCO, NJE 00-07) was named an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, in recognition of her "distinguished service to business, to women's engagement in executive roles, to gender equality, and to the community.”

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone; Diane has had an extraordinary career by any measure.

Diane spent nearly 8 years at McKinsey, becoming a Partner even though she joined in a non-Partner-track role (“one thing led to another,” she says). She has also formerly held senior executive roles at Westpac, a $16 billion Australian banking and financial services firm. Since 2008, she has served exclusively on boards, holding chairmanships at NBN Co. Ltd., Broadspectrum, Safe Work Australia, and the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, as well as directorships at Wesfarmers, AGL Limited, and others.

A staunch supporter of gender parity in leadership, she also served a two-year term as President of Chief Executive Women.

We spoke with Diane about what she has seen in terms of an improvement in gender parity, what she looks for when deciding to serve on boards, why a recent exhibit of Aboriginal art spoke to her, and more.

Here are some highlights from our conversation.

Serving on boards: A wide portfolio

Diane has served on a wide range of boards, choosing opportunities that allow her to help build up companies.

She says that diversity in her portfolio is important; she has served on the cooperative CBH Group and worked with the Australian government, in addition to sitting on the boards of many public and private entities. She most recently was named Chair of fintech company Zip Co.

She adds that her reputation as someone who wants to foster growth ensures that she gets interesting offers, many from unlisted companies, which allows her to fulfill her goal of being sectorally diverse. “There needs to be something to do,” she says. “I don’t want to find myself just in Western Australia with an echo chamber around me. I'm not a status quo person. I want to bring intellect and problem-solving skills to find a potential resolution for a problem. I want to improve performance.”

Diversity on boards: Some steps in the right direction

Diane says that while she has not seen the kind of improvement in the gender balance of boards that she would like to see, there have been some positive steps made.

“Certainly, the topic is much more firmly on the agenda,” she says. “There's a greater depth and understanding, and I think there's a much stronger recognition of the social justice element of the argument for more diversity and inclusion at all levels of society.

There is also a strong pull from male directors to ensure that the boards are diverse. In Australia, the corporate governance guidelines require listed companies to disclose a skills matrix; you're required to think about the skills you need to deliver the strategy of the company and for the board to be able to support doing that.

It also prompts you to use other mechanisms to bring these skills into the boardroom through the use of experts or education and so on. There’s an increasing understanding that if you don't have a particular voice at your table, you need to do something to amplify it from other places. I see that change, and more desire to hear from diverse voices.”

Overcoming cultural bias and the Gender Pay Gap

Diane adds that a 50/50 representation of women in leadership roles is “the only target that has absolutely any integrity.” She explains: “I don't ascribe to the view that men and women are inherently different in the way that they operate or express their leadership. I think the experiences that have been available to women are different to the experiences that have been available to men, and that is what's driving observable differences in behavior and style. I'm hoping that over time, as opportunities become more equal, what we will see is a more diverse range of behaviors from both men and women in a way that bring boards to even greater diversity.”

She adds that the bias is cultural – and that it comes from women as well as men. She gives an example: “I remember an entrepreneur telling me, at a venture capital seminar that I was speaking at, that her biggest individual challenge had actually been her mother-in-law, who was saying things to this woman's husband along the lines of, "You're letting your wife do what?”, when they were mortgaging the family home against an amazing business idea (which turned out to be very successful).

There are a set of cultural norms that really fight against women. Out of those norms comes an overall lack of respect for women and women's activities in society, which leads to the Gender Pay Gap. I'm not talking about equal pay for equal work, but the Gender Pay Gap, which looks at all the women working and all the money they earn, and then all the men and all the money they earn. In Australia, there's a gap of about 14%. And in the state where I live, which is very industrial and a resources state, that gap is 22%.

This means that there's 22% more value ascribed to activities that men do, and a lack of respect for the work women do. Clearly, you're going to end up with a male head of household in the paid workforce and the woman taking a lot more of the unpaid work. We've seen that during the pandemic; the number of unpaid working hours that women do actually increased. You would've thought with families at home that it might have evened out. But it didn't; it went in the opposite direction.

In Western Australia, there's a wonderful organization called CEOs for Gender Equity. The CEOs who join commit to very regularly sitting down with their people and challenging themselves as to their own unconscious biases, cultural norms, and preconceived notions to ensure that they're using all of the talent pool that's available to them. In developed economies where the population is aging, if we don't use all of our available talent, it's going to create some very interesting skill gaps. We also know that whenever working mothers’ representation in particular goes up, the participation rates across the entire economy go up.”

A rewarding challenge

In 2014, Diane was serving as Chair of the Board of Sydney-based Broadspectrum, a contracting company providing logistics and infrastructure services. A government client needed help supporting thousands of asylum seekers in regional centers where their asylum claims were reviewed, removing the incentive for people smugglers to put them on risky pathways to enter Australia illegally.  The work attracted the attention of activists opposed to the policy.

“It was difficult work and we did it very well,” Diane says. “I was proud of [our] people who were flying in and flying out, dealing with very vulnerable people who needed support on much wider levels than we'd been contracted to provide and were doing a very good job of making that happen. It was a life-changing experience. It was one of those things where you sort of walk into a fire and come out stronger.”

A favorite vacation spot

Diane relaxes at a ski resort in Utah
Diane relaxes at a ski resort in Utah

“My favorite place to go on vacation is Utah. I’m very fond of skiing at Snowbird. In a funny way, Salt Lake City, as a resource industry city of a couple million people, is very similar to the town that I live in. Of course, it embraces the mountains where, here in Perth, we embrace the ocean and the river.”

An experience of Aboriginal art

Diane describes visiting a museum with an exhibit featuring an Aboriginal founding narrative.

“Very recently, I went to the New West Australian Museum in Perth. It's called Boola Bardip, which in the local Noongar language means "thousands of stories." They have an exhibition there called "Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters." And the Seven Sisters, the stars, is a theme of stories and folklore that's common to pretty much every culture.

In Australian indigenous culture, songlines are spoken histories and pieces of guidance that chart pathways through the land and pathways through life. This songline of the seven sisters is consistent across the entirety of Australia. Remember, Australia is the size of the continental U.S.A. This exhibition charts the songline from the west coast to the east coast, and as it moves through different indigenous people's lands, how it is embodied in each of those places, and how the stories come out in art.

The core of the story is that the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, from central Australia, have woven these life-size Seven Sisters. The Seven Sisters are then pursued across the sky by a nasty man who has bad intent. As I looked at these Seven Sisters, all strong and different, I wondered why it was not possible for them to just turn around and be done with this evil bloke.

For me, it was a real questioning of the weight and strength of numbers. Higher numbers do not always guarantee a win. That made me think about how 50/50 representation is so critical for women, and it's got to be at the leadership level.”

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