A high bar for equality

Since long before Westpac became the first big four bank to appoint a female CEO, it's been on a mission to create a more equal workplace

Over its 200-year history, Westpac has built a reputation as a leader in gender diversity. And the story begins well before it appointed Gail Kelly as CEO in 2008, making it the first big four bank to put a woman at the helm. In fact, Westpac was the country’s first bank to recruit a female bank teller, bank manager, general manager and board director, and it was the first company to introduce paid maternity leave in 1995.

Continuing this tradition, today the bank has three female state general managers leading its broking business on the eastern seaboard: Suzanne Wood in Vic/Tas, Sarah Willsallen in NSW/ACT, and Bridget Wallington in Qld.

“I’m really proud of the fact that we have three female general managers in our team. We are a unique group of leaders, with a broad and diverse range of skills and experience,” Wood says. “As individuals we all bring complementary skills to the table – we are big supporters of one another and leverage each other’s skills.”

While having three women in leadership positions is still something to applaud and recognise, it’s slowly becoming more common, especially at Westpac. Coinciding with its bicentennial anniversary last year, the bank reached gender parity in leadership roles.

With today’s graduating classes looking vastly different from the ones 20 to 30 years ago, it’s just a matter of time before more workplaces reflect that.

“There’s a pipeline of females emerging as leaders and progressing towards senior roles,” Willsallen says. “Changing attitudes towards flexibility and male caregiving, coupled with the ongoing evolution of technology, will better enable these barriers to reduce over time.”

Cultivating those leaders is an important part of Westpac’s mission to foster gender balance, inclusion and diversity. The bank has mandated that 50% of women should be on its recruitment shortlists for all leadership roles, and that 50% of participants in its high-potential program and graduate program should be women.

“We have a strong history of embracing our diverse workforce, which gives us better insight into the goals and priorities of our brokers and their customers” - Bridget Wallington, Westpac

The Westpac Equilibrium program, now in its fourth year, is designed to support women leaders – those who are already working within the organisation and those who come from non-banking backgrounds – as they take the next step in their careers. The program recognises the value of the transferable skills, experiences and perspectives that many women bring from other industries.

The bank also has a Women of Westpac Employee Action Group, which is run by employees and designed to give female employees the opportunity to learn from and connect with one another.

“Westpac truly embraces diversity. We have a strong history of embracing our diverse workforce, which gives us better insight into the goals and priorities of our brokers and their customers,” Wallington says.

How can others learn from your journeys to the top?

Wood, Willsallen and Wallington all agree that hard work, great mentors and genuinely connecting and caring for people are the foundations of their success.

“When you are clear on your purpose, when you look after your team and keep the customer at the centre of what you do, you put yourself in a strong position to take up the next challenge or opportunity,” Wood says.

They’re also quick to praise their teams. “I have always liked the Harry Truman quote: ‘It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit for it’,” Willsallen says.

“Create time for yourself as it makes you more effective. It can feel indulgent or selfish, but a more balanced ‘you’ is a happier, better, healthier ... person to be around” - Sarah Willsallen, Westpac

“I am most proud of the fabulous teams I have been part of as we have grown and transformed. Watching their personal growth and seeing the impact we have had on the business and our customers has always been tremendously rewarding for me.”

All three emphasise the importance of believing in and being true to yourself, especially when it comes to standing out and stepping up for new roles.

“Find your own style, play to your own strengths, and don’t be afraid to be the one person in the room with a totally different perspective from everyone else,” Wallington says.

One of the biggest barriers for women is not always other people but their own “limiting beliefs”, Wood says. She urges women to invest time in their professional development, build advocates, and network so they’ll be noticed for opportunities that will allow them to learn and grow.

How do you balance work and life?

Wood, for one, starts her day at the crack of dawn. With three children at home, she has to be disciplined about her morning routine.

“It’s my calm before the day ahead. For me, being fit, spending time with my children, and investing in self-development create my balance. Every day starts around 5am to exercise, have breakfast with the kids and listen to audiobooks on my commute to work,” she says.

Ticking off some of those fulfilling personal things helps to prepare her for the day’s work ahead.

“I make sure the important things are well planned both at work and home, and everything else needs to be flexible. Focus on what’s most important day by day and things will work out,” Wood says.

With so many tasks and commitments on the go, many women can relate to feeling stretched in all directions. As a result, many put their own needs last.

Willsallen’s advice is to “above all, be gentle on yourself ”.

“Create time for yourself as it makes you more effective. It can feel indulgent or selfish, but a more balanced ‘you’ is a happier, better, healthier and more enjoyable person to be around.”

Wallington emphasises the importance of not putting too much pressure on yourself.

“Things happen in life, and there will be times when personal events have to take priority over work. Good leaders will understand and accommodate for those times in your life,” she says.

What does the future look like?

The line-up outside the women’s bathroom at mortgage events these days is a good indication of how the industry is changing.

“Twenty years ago, that wasn’t the case,” Willsallen says.

Technology, flexible working practices and a much greater emphasis on diversity of all types have made a big difference to the make-up of the workforce, she adds.

Broking is also an appealing career move for many women who want the autonomy that comes with being a small business owner.

“Equally, with women being key decision makers with regard to their finances, the attraction of female brokers reflecting the communities they serve is compelling for customers. It’s great to see female brokers being successful, and I look forward to the trend continuing,” Willsallen says.

“I’m really proud of the fact that we have three female general managers in our team. We are a unique group of leaders, with a broad and diverse range of skills” Suzanne Wood, Westpac

Large businesses like Westpac are setting the gold standard for what all companies should be striving to achieve – an inclusive workplace in which people of all backgrounds feel valued and open, honest feedback is encouraged.

Men are also an important part of this process. Not only should men in leadership positions be demonstrating the desired behaviours and expectations to those around them, but they also play a vital role in mentoring high-potential women in the industry and setting an example for other men to emulate.

“As with all aspects of this topic, we just need to continue the conversation. The more we talk about it, the more people become aware of it,” Willsallen says.

“[And] the more changes we will see,” Wallington adds.