Breaking down barriers

Monday, 03 April 2017

Emily Chantiri photo
Emily Chantiri

    Emily Chantiri speaks to Vanessa Guthrie about working in a male-dominated industry and promoting the case for gender diversity.

    Working in a male-dominated industry for more than 30 years, Dr Vanessa Guthrie MAICD has been a pioneer in breaking down barriers for women. During her career, Guthrie has often found herself the only female member on executive teams and boards. Her current board roles include chair of the Minerals Council of Australia and deputy chair of the WA Cricket Association (WACA). She is an active member of Chief Executive Women (CEW) and a fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE).

    A Sydney girl, Guthrie grew up in Greenacre before moving to the New South Wales country town of Armidale to study environment and geology at the University of New England. While there, she found her two great loves. “I fell in love in more ways than one,” she says. “Not just with geology and the bush, but with a fellow student studying geology, who is now my husband, Joe Stolz.”

    A child of the 1970s, Guthrie says she was fortunate to grow up at a time when an awareness of the environment, pollution and the impact western society has on wastage was beginning to emerge. “This inspired me. Although I wasn’t that brilliant at science in school, I’ve always been interested and observant of the environment around me.” After graduating with a degree in geology and environment, she and Stolz travelled overseas before moving to Tasmania where she completed a PhD in geology and joined the mining industry. The couple remained in Tasmania for 11 years. It was this exposure to mining operations and metals such as copper, tin, lead, zinc and gold that led her to Western Australia (WA) in 1998, she says.

    “I was working across various commodities and had a number of roles which proved a good fit for me. This diversity led me to take a position with Western Mining Corporation (WMC) in Perth.”

    Guthrie and her husband moved to WA with two young boys in tow. She says the decision was based on the right choice for her family. “Both Joe and I have done fly-in, fly-out roles and lived apart for periods of time,” she says. “With each move, the decision was always based on the opportunity it presented to the family, rather than being based on either one of our careers.”

    Following the move, the couple settled in Perth and while Guthrie had a secure job, her husband changed his career path to allow more flexibility when it came to raising their boys.

    “This was during the downturn in the mining industry before the recent boom, and there wasn’t a lot of work for exploration geologists.” she says, “Joe decided to change careers and move into property conveyancing. This helped enormously as the boys were young and he could be at home more. This freed me up to concentrate on my job.”

    Gender challenges

    In 2013, Guthrie won the Outstanding Professional Woman award from the WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy and was also recognised by Women in Mining UK’s 100 Global Inspirational Women in Mining in 2013.

    Guthrie believes the topic of gender remains an invisible barrier to women in her industry and says discussion of gender diversity is essential.

    “Up until now, it has been almost invisible,” she says. “I say this because it’s not just about talent. The culture in business has, over time, presented itself as an invisible barrier to the buried talent that women have.”

    She recalls an incident in the late 1990s in the goldfield town of Leinster. “I was at a gathering with some of the local women who were mostly looking after young children while their partners worked. Almost all of them said: ‘I used to be a geologist, metallurgist or accountant.’ It struck me that their talent and experience was set aside to look after the children. They had no expectation of being able to return to work.”

    Guthrie acknowledges that work structures have come a long way since then and there are now policies to encourage women to return to work. Yet, there still remains a stigma around women being in part-time jobs as being unable to fully commit to their careers.“This is the invisible barrier in our culture that needs to be challenged,” she says.“I don’t think there is harm in elevating the conversation around gender to make us more aware that there has been a long-term barrier for women participating fully in the workforce and being productive.

    “There has been a lot of significant work done over the last few years, so what’s holding women back? I believe it’s unconscious bias that says women are either not visible, unavailable or not committed, therefore the opportunities don’t present themselves.” As a result, she says business is becoming aware and recognising the need for a critical mass of women on boards. “All the evidence says that at 30 per cent you make a systemic change to the diversity of thought in the boardroom,” she says.

    Guthrie sees her role as chair of the Minerals Council of Australia – and the fact that she is the first woman appointed to the role – as significant in supporting and advocating for more women in the industry. “I don’t tend to view myself as being a woman on the board, but as a woman that brings experience and diversity of thought to the table and provides a different way at looking at issues. If that comes because I’m a woman, so be it.”

    She believes the time is right for everyone to ask how to add diversity to the boardroom. “When you look at a board construct, very often you see they’re very similar, in terms of age, background, skill-set, gender and race. While some of them are exceptional performers, it is not really a healthy and sustainable board.”

    Often, says Guthrie, if the question regarding gender is not raised by other board members, she will raise it.

    “Whenever I have raised the gender issue in the mining industry, there has been a genuine surprise by the male board members. Often the response will be: ‘Oh, I hadn’t even thought about it.’” she says. “Once again, it’s a case of unconscious bias. Thankfully, more men are seeing that the lack of diversity is holding back company performance and this is terrific.”

    As a woman who has made it to the top – only five per cent of CEOs in the ASX200 are female – the debate about quotas and targets is one Guthrie is often asked about.

    “The sense of tokenism does concern me. Does anyone ever ask a man whether they are there as a token gesture?” she says. “My experience has been that those who set genuine targets for themselves to change diversity in the boardroom tend to outperform others. But there is still a way to go before boards get more comfortable reaching gender targets.”

    The future

    In late 2016, Guthrie stepped away from her role at Toro Energy to concentrate on transitioning into a portfolio of board directorships. She is also conscious of “giving back” to the community through her involvement in a not-for-profit organisation and through mentoring.

    In 2014, she was appointed by then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to the Australia-India Prime Ministers’ CEO Forum, to help drive the bilateral economic relationship between Australia and India. Guthrie was one of three Australian CEOs who took part in the signing of the nuclear co-operation agreement to allow uranium sales into India. She continues to participate in and support the development of the Australia-India trade relationship.

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