Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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Where Are The Women?

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on June 6, 2013

Every time I see a talking head smirking about ‘a woman’s place’, as we did so memorably on Fox News this week, I think, that must have been exactly the expression on the mastodon’s face when they wandered into the tar pit – smug and so confident of their own righteousness, their own place in the world, that they didn’t realize that extinction awaited. Do I think that men will be, or should become, extinct? No, I adore men far too much for that, but it’s pretty staggering that we haven’t figured out how to integrate 51% of the world’s population into organizations and societal structures effectively – how to leverage women’s strength, intelligence and skills. A recent report about Australian Surf Life Saving Foundation (SLSA) suggests that we need to evaluate how we are integrating women into the world of water safety and drowning prevention. We can’t change unless we talk, and if we don’t change we are headed for the tar pit of extinction.

Recently the ‘boys club’ culture was reported to be an endemic and destructive force within the top leadership of the Australian Surf Life Saving Foundation (SLSA), along with allegations of a lack of transparency and concerns about financial dealings at the top level.  SLSA has been aggressively and publicly addressing the issues.  What I find most concerning is that there is the potential for similar stories with other organizations if we don’t all learn from SLSA’s experience. A good starting point would be to review the report by the independent auditor and review the action steps SLSA is taking to fulfill the recommendations.  If you see any issues that apply to your organization, now would be the time to take concrete steps to address those weaknesses.

I will state upfront that I unequivocally support the incredible work of SLSA and it’s thousands of dedicated members. They have rightfully become an Australian institution and an inspiration to many of us around the world and I give the leadership credit for that accomplishment. However, a quick look at the SLSA Board shows the only women on the Board prior to the upheaval were Independent Directors, not lifesaving professionals involved in day-to-day operations. As you dig deeper, there are a number of women on the main committees, but unlike RLSS Australia, RLSS UK and the Lifesaving Society Canada, there were no professional lifesaving women at the Board level, and I think that is a problem. SLSA has acted proactively by hiring another woman in a senior executive post, I trend that I hope they continue, not to avoid controversy or check a box off the ‘to do’ list, but for the continued strength of the organization.

A special shout-out goes to the U.S. National Park Service for clearly stating their commitment to women in lifeguarding with their Annual All-Women Lifeguard Tournament held at the Gateway National Recreation Area.  However, you other organizations with few or no women, or women only in ‘traditionally female’ roles in the top ranks – you know who you are, the question is, why? What is your excuse? Will you be the subject of the next critical article?

What happens when you exclude women? When women are not part of setting the culture for an organization? Bottom line, it’s bad for the bottom line. Study after study shows that organizations with women represented at the top level  perform better competitively, yield a 35% higher Return on Equity (ROE), and do significantly better in terms of ethical conduct.  If you want to be competitive in the global market, you need strong, intelligent and talented women included in the top layer of management.

My hope is that SLSA taps into some of the incredible female talent in the Australian lifesaving field and continues to identify and cultivate women for Board level positions. And, I hope that organizations around the world without strong female representation at the top levels take a hard look at the lack of diversity and how it is weakening their organization.

As for the response to the obnoxious talking heads, here is the response from a fellow Fox broadcaster.  Personally I give her enormous credit for not smacking the ‘oh the little woman is upset’ sanctimonious smirk off their faces – they deserved it. I just hope their wives, daughters, sisters and mothers did it for us. The tar pit awaits them.

Note: This blog was first published on Wednesday, June 5 and edited and re-posted on Thursday, June 6. As a matter of professional courtesy, I routinely notify every individual or organization that is mentioned or linked to in every blog I post and invite them to contact me with comments or corrections. Guy Britt, the National Public Affairs Manager at SLSA was kind enough to contact me with corrections and clarifications to the information I had originally compiled, which I have incorporated into the original blog.

Specific issues that were clarified were:

  • There is ongoing and open debate occurring within Australia regarding the original report. Interestingly enough, there is roughly a 50/50 split attacking, or in defense of, SLSA within Australia.
  • SLSA leadership has been publicly addressing the allegations and Guy provided me with specifics and links to the independent audit report and news articles related to the allegations, which I included above.
  • The two female independent directors that the news report suggested had stepped down in protest are still on the board and are actively involved in SLSA.

Regarding the issue of helmets and lifejackets that were raised in the news report, Guy confirmed that SLSA is currently conducting extensive independent testing on the issue and is expecting to have more information following Board meetings in July and October. For all of you interested in the equipment issue, I encourage you to check the SLSA website for information after October.

I do believe that the situation with SLSA and with a number of other organizations undergoing change brings up very interesting issues regarding an organization’s culture. I hope you’ll check back next week when I write about organizational culture – why culture is important, how to develop the right culture, why shifts in culture are necessary as organizations grow, and what happens when the culture issue isn’t addressed.

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