Smith-Gander reveals how to conquer the boys club

It's not surprising that Diane Smith-Gander, one of only ten women that chairs an ASX 200 company, chooses the Bridge Room for lunch.

 Ross Lusted's two-hatted restaurant in Sydney's financial district simply oozes power. It has the understated elegance of a gentleman's club, though lighter and with a modern twist. Comfortable Danish furniture has replaced the Chesterfields and large steaks are banished in favour of local produce presented with artisan skill. 

Most lunchtimes, the tables, set discreetly apart, are filled with men in suits stitching up deals or networking, so my luncheon partner, Diane Smith-Gander, stands out yet seems completely at home. She acknowledges a couple of our fellow diners as she seats herself at our table.

Nearly six foot, athletic and with short silver hair, the chairman of Transfield Services, exudes confidence and energy as we sit down to talk about her latest role: president of Chief Executive Women.

The organisation is dedicated to creating more Smith-Ganders in the boardrooms and executive floors of Australian business.

As well as providing networking for those who have smashed through the glass ceiling, CEW is active in identifying emerging women executives and nurturing them. It offers  scholarships and mentoring, while at the same time engaging in some megaphone diplomacy, backed by research, on the importance of gender balance at the executive level in organisations.

Smith-Gander is a trailblazer. While we order, I ask her about her winding and not always predictable path into the boardrooms of Wesfarmers, NBN Co and now Transfield. It becomes clear it's not something she planned – but rather the result of grabbing opportunities, playing the networking game, finding supporters and mentors (different in her view) – and taking risks.

Smith-Gander was by her own description "a late bloomer" who spent her early years "playing a lot of basketball" – she was in the WA state team and doing a degree. A job in Adelaide took her closer to the eastern states where she realised there was far more scope.

"You do see a lot of women from Western Australia come over to Sydney or Melbourne because there are just so many more opportunities," she says.

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"That's a shame and I think it contributes to the issue that Western Australia has in being worse in terms of gender issues," she says.

Smith-Gander gravitated into financial services before settling in Westpac for 10 years.

"I did the female thing, and said 'yes' to every job and they just got bigger and bigger," she says of her initial success in Westpac.  But then she missed out on a job she really wanted and found herself working for a guy, whom she didn't feel was adding value to the company or to her.

"So I had a moment, and surprised everyone," she said of her decision to leave. "I  had been told I wasn't strategic enough and I didn't have any international experience."  It was time for bold steps.

Smith-Gander headed off to the United States, snaring herself a job at McKinsey in Washington DC. She thought she would be working in financial services and technology but as the dot com bubble burst she instead found herself seeking clients in Europe –anything from mergers in the oil industry, to bank takeovers in Sweden. It was, she says, "transformational".

After almost  8 years she had an opportunity to go back to Westpac to the exact job that she'd missed out on – a strategic and technology role , though she admits her timing wasn't good. The global financial crisis had put a cap on bank spending and on her plans for Westpac.

Smith-Gander's father also became ill and so she took another punt: she quit, returned to Western Australia after 24 years and began networking furiously.

It helps to have an unusual name and a brother who is a president of the North Cottesloe Surf Lifesaving Club, which Diane admits is a who's who of West Australian business and politics: members include Julie Bishop, the Roberts brothers (Multiplex), and the late Len Buckeridge, a titan of WA business.

Out of her deliberate strategy of hanging out where the boys hang out, came an offer to join the board of Wesfarmers, the WA-based company that owns Bunnings and Coles. Smith-Gander says chairman Bob Every was looking for diversity on the board. As a West Australian woman, she ticked several boxes.

"I think a lot of women are worried about that business offer, if I take this risk and I fail what would happen?"

"It's not about addressing weaknesses – I don't hold with that at all. You bring a set of skills: grow those," she says.

Smith-Gander has chosen John Dory, which arrives artfully stacked on the plate. I have flathead from the south coast, served raw with thin curls of crunchy melon and a hint of grapefruit. We share a baby gem lettuce salad with a light cream dressing and herbs chopped as fine as dust. It's exquisite.

So what are the priorities of Chief Executive Women under Smith-Gander?

About 20 per cent of board seats in ASX 200 companies are now held by women – progress she describes as "glacial" but progress nonetheless.

The next frontier, says Smith-Gander is "the C-suite."

C-suite is slang for a corporation's most important senior executives and stems from the fact that top senior executives' titles tend to start with the letter C, for chief.

In Australia men are nine times more likely to hold executive leadership positions than women. That's despite women making up more than half of all university graduates and getting higher marks.

So what goes wrong? Chief Executive Women as an organisation argues that there are several myths about women in business and overcoming these biases requires creating a culture that genuinely values and embraces diversity of opinion and leadership style.

The male champions of change program – where several male CEOs signed up towork at overcoming cultural impediments in their organisations – was important, Smith-Gander says.

 "What they are saying is that from me, right down through my organisation, we are going to do something different,"  she says." For example, David Thodey at Telstra saying all jobs are flexible and if not, why not;  Kevin McCann at Macquarie Bank saying, it's not unconscious bias, it's just bias."

Smith-Gander says it's also important for men to put women into what she terms "hot jobs"  – such as managing key divisions, not just the areas where women have traditionally been placed.

"Equally, I think women have to step up and have a voice as loud as the champions of change," she says.

"Sometimes women are a bit reticent, because they worry about being gender stereotyped. Gender diversity is a core economic issue. It's the single biggest productivity lever we can pull. We need to move this debate from being a social justice issue to a business economic issue."

Having talked to its members – who include most  of Australia's most successful business women – CEW has put childcare at the top of its priorities.

Smith-Gander does not have children – she describes herself as a PANK – professional aunty, no kids

She acknowledges that paid parental leave as proposed by Prime Minister, Tony Abbott  had some advantages but says: "It's the years of childcare and how to get through that that's the biggest impediment."

 "When you know that you have got to perform better than a man to get promoted, that you are likely to get 17 or 18 per cent less pay for doing the same job and you have very limited childcare available and the price of it is so high, that doesn't add up to a value proposition for someone who has two children," she says passionately.

Smith-Gander has plenty of ideas that the Prime MInister could explore beyond the current system: guest workers – the solution in Hong Kong – tax deductibility and even a HECs-style debt, similar to that used to fund university fees, that defers the cost of childcare until later.

She also has advice for women who have made it and those on the way up.

"Every woman should be helping other women. I think there is a special place in hell for a woman who climbs the ladder and pulls it up behind her."

"The other thing I would would say to senior women is really think about the childcare equation and make sure you are really providing an opportunity for people. We modify the basements in our facilities for joggers and bike riders; can't we do something about childcare?"

And her advice to young women forging a career: "Don't limit yourself. Don't say: 'I never wanted to be a chief executive.' Go get out there and be brave."