Aurizon boss Lance Hockridge has delivered an impassioned address at the AHRI Diversity & Inclusion Conference, detailing the steps the operator has taken to reduce gender inequity in its workforce.
“Women make up just under 15% of our entire workforce,” Hockridge told the conference on May 18. “In our operational area, this is far lower.”
Aurizon has around 6% female traincrew, 5% female tradespeople and 10% female engineers, he detailed.
“As CEO you occasionally hear murmurs in the lifts and corridors of your workplace. It’s often difficult to appreciate, with clarity and insight, some of the people issues that might be at play at any given time.”
Looking to act on the chatter he had heard, Hockridge brought together a group of female executives, he said, for a frank discussion about issues they face as women at Aurizon.
“Quite honestly,” he said, “I was dumbfounded by what I heard.
“The tactics of exclusion, the undermining behaviour and the unconscious – and perhaps not so unconscious – bias that prevented these and other women from rising to the top.”
A parent with two school-aged children of both sexes, Hockridge said he would never accept the notion that they wouldn’t have the same opportunities in education, in the workforce and in life.
“Similarly I would in no way by prepared to turn a blind eye to gender inequity playing out in an organisation I led.
“I have never considered diversity to be about ideology or political correctness. This is so much more than just ‘the right thing to do’,” he argued.
“Increasing the talent pool makes good commercial sense to our organisation.”
Hockridge compared gender inequity issue to workforce safety.
“When I first joined Aurizon people told me we would always have workplace accidents because that was the nature of working in the railway,” he recalled.
“I did not – and will not – ever accept this. And needless to say after significant cultural change and much focus, our safety performance has gone from substandard to now approaching world-class.”
Building off his experience shifting Aurizon’s safety culture, Hockridge said he knew that to improve gender inequity in the company’s workforce he would need to “initiate a process that would be uncomfortable and confronting for some parts of our workforce”.
Midway through last year, he set a five-year aspirational target to increase female representation at Aurizon to 30%.
“In a heavy industry like ours, with such low female participation, this target is bold, and it will be difficult to achieve,” he conceded.
“I’ve received all sorts of feedback about its implementation. It’s fair to say it has caused the organisation, or at least big parts of it, to take a very deep breath.”
A number of early initiatives toward Aurizon’s ambitious target have included open discussions with both male and female members of its workforce, as well as a CEO Rotation Program, which allows high potential women to work with Hockridge four months at a time.
“We also have a transition to operations program for women in corporate roles wanting to take a leap of faith and transition into the operational world through an 18 month program through our supply chain,” Hockridge added.
An employee referral program has also been introduce, to reward employees for successfully referring women to operational roles, and indigenous people to any role in Aurizon, the chief executive said.
Collectively, Hockridge said Aurizon’s initiatives so far have already driven tangible results.
For the first time, Aurizon’s female voluntary turnover rate is the same as for men – reducing from 15.5% in 2012 to 5.4% at the end of 2013/14.
There has also been an increase in female representation in the company’s management leadership team, from 21% to 26%m, and females now make up 34% of Aurizon’s middle management roles.
“Almost 27% of all trainees, apprentices and graduates are female,” Hockridge outlined. “And, of the positions filled by females last year, 33% were appointed to non-office based roles representing an increase of 19%.
“Clearly we are not there yet, but it’s encouraging to get some hard earned runs on the board,” Hockridge continued.
“This is an issue of national and global importance. I encourage you to spread that message far and wide, to challenge and disrupt the status quo in your organisations.
“Collectively we can make the changes that, while they may feel uncomfortable today, are critical to achieving fairness, equity and productivity in our society.”
AHRI is the Australian Human Resources Institute. Its Inclusion and Diversity Conference took place in Sydney, on Monday, May 18.