Former Future Fund chief Mark Burgess reckons male bosses in financial services need to change their thinking to become more effective at promoting on genuine merit and close the gender pay gap.

“Even though we’ve made significant improvements in the way women are being correctly promoted up the curve, we’ve got to work on the way men behave,” Burgess told delegates at the inaugural Women, Super and Wealth Summit in Sydney on Thursday, April 27. “We’ve got to change the thinking of men, and I’m not making excuses for men, but I can’t emphasise enough how hard that is.”

Burgess said bosses, particularly in male-dominated industries such as financial services, need to be astute in checking their unintended biases. As an example, he shared an anecdote from a business he once worked in, where half the senior executives were men and half were women.

“We’d get to the year end and be assessing people on the discretionary bonus and, commonly, the head of the team, a man, would say that so and so, usually a woman, had not contributed enough to meetings,” he said. “And I said if they are in the meeting and not contributing, then surely the head of the group who chairs it should be penalised for not getting enough out of them?”

 Improvements for meetings

Burgess said the “typically male” tendency to interrupt and talk over women was a behaviour that needed to be managed in the workplace.

He cited a recent study that analysed the US Supreme Court and found that female justices are yelled over at three times the rate of men.

“They don’t get a chance to finish their questions,” he explained. “That is typically male behaviour and sometimes the way offices work. I think we can all think of a dozen examples of that sort of thing. It flows through the day. It’s not bad behaviour. It’s subtle. But if you don’t keep your eye on it, [such behaviour] works its way up to have an effect on compensation.”

Burgess said talking about gender equity was not the way to solve this problem.

“Share the leadership of the meeting,” he advised. “Have a process where everyone has to speak at a certain moment of the meeting. These are basics that start to take away some of these behavioural biases that are unfair to women and I think create an unfair environment.”

He also urged the sector to “get rid of lazy thinking” about how to improve gender balance.

“I see too many times the board sends the female directors off to help the female executives. Some female directors are good at it and some not at all,” he said. “You’re better off sending the directors who are good mentors and good at listening carefully and can participate and encourage.”

Burgess is a highly respected stalwart of Australia’s institutional finance sector. He was formerly the head of the nation’s sovereign wealth fund and before that chief executive of ASX-listed fund manager Treasury Group. His current roles include chairing Yarra Capital Management. Last week, HESTA, one of the country’s biggest super funds, announced Burgess had been appointed to head its investment committee.

Promoting women

The Summit was convened with the goal of gathering momentum within the superannuation, wealth management and advice industries to address the glaring gender gap in retirement outcomes for women. On average, Australian women retire with 47 per cent less super than their male counterparts and there is little indication of this improving for younger generations. A 2016 Senate inquiry found that the biggest driver of the super gender gap is the pay gap.

Financial Services Council chief executive Sally Loane has told the Summit that, among other things, the industry needed to do more to promote women into senior roles.

“Women need to play everywhere in this industry – as fund managers, within asset owners, as advisers, and as trustees of their own self-managed super funds,” she said. “We need an increasingly diverse industry to reflect our increasingly diverse members.”

Burgess said a backlash from men who feel disadvantaged by the growing focus on gender equity was an emerging problem.

“Because more women are being promoted, there is a clear indication in staff engagement surveys that men are starting to bitch about it,” he said.

Burgess said this was “a big deal” and that leaders needed to engage with it.

“There’s no point promoting more women and giving them disgruntled workforces,” he said. “We’ve got to bring everyone along and make sure merit is emphasised. Everyone has to understand that is the reason why, correctly, change is occurring in our industry.”

Investment Magazine was the official media partner of the Women, Super and Wealth Summit 2017. The Summit was jointly presented by the SMSF Association and Financial Services Council, with the support of the Commonwealth Bank.