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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

experiences in elevating the representation of women in leadership

A letter from business leaders

Woolworths' Gender Diversity Journey

Getting in the

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.

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.


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.

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.

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

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

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

Capturing the diversity
2011 and beyond

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

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
Grant, ‘however, it’s absolutely the right thing to do for the business.
Our culture and performance will be all the better for