Tarsha Finney: Annie, you were the Global Diversity and Inclusion Manager at Lend Lease based in New York from 2008 – 2010, as well as having been the president of the National Association of Women in Construction here in Sydney (2006-2007) as part of that position you made a case to Lend Lease for the pursuit of equity. What was that?
Annie Tennant: There is a business case for diversity and it has been around for a while. The top 50 companies for gender diversity in the Fortune 500 outperformed the NASDAQ by 28.2% and the Dow Jones Industrial Average by 22.4% over a 10 year period. In addition, almost 90% of Fortune 500 companies have women on their board of directors (2006). Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women achieved higher financial performance than those companies with the lowest. There is evidence that Boards with at least three women have an even better financial performance with Return on Equity at 16.7% (average 11.5%) and Return on Invested Capital at 10% (average 6.2%).
Having a visibly diverse Board and Executive level communicates externally and internally, that the company takes Diversity seriously and that difference of opinions and thought are accommodated at all levels of the organisation. Many Boards search for additional women for their Boards and claim an inability to find suitably qualified candidates. This is often because there is a belief that a successful Board member needs to have a particular career history and be at CEO level already. Essentially, board members are being drawn from an already exclusive club, of which very few women are members. With all Board members having a similar experience, there is a reinforcement of the “boys’ club” networks that perpetuate the belief that there are no appropriate women for the job.
We also argued that more diverse senior leadership is positive and can lead to more constructive open debate and diligence within the company as well as more creative and effective business leadership. Surveys of Fortune 1000 companies indicated that diversity initiatives had a positive impact on their business in the following ways: Decrease in interpersonal conflict between employees; enabling the organisation to move into emerging markets; improving of corporate culture, employee morale, productivity, bottom line; increasing of creativity.
In addition to this, there are reports that conclude that diversity programs reduce discrimination claims and thereby reducing costly discrimination lawsuits.
In terms of our customers and clients at Lend lease, the argument was made that the argument was made that they are increasingly diverse are increasingly more diverse. For example, 40% of privately held US companies are women-owned.
The diversity program then was an opportunity to better understand the diverse needs of our customers and clients – in order to retain them through serving their needs. It also gave us an opportunity to develop new and more innovative business practices and opportunities to address the needs of our customers and clients.
TF: So if we translate some of these ideas into architectural practice, particularly the idea that “having a visibly diverse Board and Executive level communicates externally and internally, that the company takes Diversity seriously and that difference of opinions and thought are accommodated at all levels of the organisation.” What in your experience is the most significant impediment to women’s participation in Senior Management in architectural practice?
AT: The high turnover of staff takes a lot off the bottom line of a company. We estimate that it takes six months for a new recruit to gain ownership over a position and roughly $60,000 per employee during that transition.
So retention of high value female employees is a key objective for us. The issues of women’s participation in architectural practice are to do with the retention and participation of women at a senior level and they are quite specific. They are to do with the twin issues of the development of flexible work practices that can accommodate carer responsibilities for both men and women and the presence or absence of visible role models.
Mechanisms for aiding retention that we’ve seen used include longer than typical paid parental leave for the primary care giver (this means mother OR father), return to work bonuses for those on maternity leave, negotiated flexible work practice that allows some late morning starts and/or early departures to accommodate family responsibilities. In addition to this it is worth considering women in leadership targets and gender participation targets in leadership programs for high potential individuals. An understanding that your clients are working flexibly and that they are more often women should be a big message to our architectural partners that it’s time to get real about supporting and promoting women. It is also important to accept that different career paths or experience in the broader industry i.e. not your typical architectural career path, is a benefit for your practice – it can enrich the output of the office, the office culture and communicate to staff that broader and diversity of thought and experience is valued.