Annette Kimmitt is CEO of one of Australia’s largest law firms, MinterEllison. She is also the founder of Scale Investors, a female-focused angel investor network and an ambassador for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency Pay Equity (WGEA). Annette believes that companies with women in senior leadership roles have a competitive edge.
Annette, what do you think companies should do to attract more women to senior levels of leadership?
Women have been graduating in equal numbers to men out of universities for decades. But at the top, the numbers still aren’t budging. Many companies in Australia have all the policies and procedures—parental leave for men and women, flexible work, agile work arrangements, but the numbers haven’t budged, right? So there’s something else going on.
I think you have to set targets. It’s gotta be owned by the CEO, at the board level and at the executive level. Set targets and hold people to account for those targets.
What targets does MinterEllison have?
We have a target of 30% female partners by 2020, which we are pretty close to. I think we’re at about 28% now. Beyond that, by 2025, we want a minimum of 40% women and 40% men. Across the business, no matter which way you cut the firm up, whatever you look at, we want our gender ratio to be minimum 40% women, minimum 40% men and 20% either.
We will get there by holding my leaders accountable. Internally, each leadership team identifies how we accelerate women through to partnership. What supports can we put around them? How can we champion them through to partnership level? And externally, how can we find the senior female partners in other law firms? We have recruiters on board to go after them and try to recruit them into our firm.
What do you say to the argument that business should be a meritocracy?
This is so frustrating. If the view is that only the best and brightest get through… that implicitly is saying that the men are just smarter than women. And that is absolutely not the case. There’s something else at play that’s preventing women from getting through, whether you call that unconscious bias or whatever.
How does MinterEllison business benefit from more diversity in the workplace?
If you want to be “hardcore business” about it, this is a strategic capability. As a female CEO, when I’m putting a pitch out to market, for example, I put one out to the big four banks recently for some corporate finance stuff. One bank came up with four white males, middle-aged partners who then proceed to talk to my male CFO and not me… well they are never getting our work, right?
And increasingly in the law, our key clients, a lot of them are women. I think we’re running about 60% of our general counsel clients are women. And so for us to be able to put up a diverse team starting with gender gives us an advantage. This includes cultural diversity and diversity in all of its forms. It’s a strategic capability and frankly a differentiator. And you get better results when you’ve got diversity. The innovation is better. It’s not subject to group-think. You’ve got people who think differently. You get better outcomes.
What about mentoring, does that help women progress?
I roll my eyes, frankly, when I hear people talking about mentoring women, because women don’t need it. Mentoring is somebody telling you what to do and how to fix yourself, you know, it’s giving you guidance. Now I don’t mean to diminish the importance of that for everybody, but mentoring isn’t the solution to getting more women into leadership, because the women actually don’t need fixing. They need a champion. People who are at the leadership table in decision-making role who are championing the cause of particular women.
Does generous parenting leave and flexible working hours help retain women in the workforce?
This is an idea that was given to me a few weeks ago by Libby Lyons, who’s the head of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. She’s an amazing woman. She came and spoke to me and our partners about what more we could do.
So, we really need to normalise parenting for men so it’s not solely a female or gender issue. We’ve gotta get more men taking flexible work arrangements and giving them the opportunity to take on parenting, to engage with parenting responsibilities.
So she suggested we set targets around men involving themselves in flexible work arrangements in the firm, which I think is a really good idea actually. Because that doesn’t treat it as a female issue or as a gender issue. So that’s one of the things we’re exploring. We haven’t implemented it yet but I think it’s a cool idea.
How are you addressing the gender pay gap?
On a like-for-like basis, MinterEllison shut that gap down a number of years ago. We model that and check it to within an inch of its life every year. So that’s good. But Libby suggested we look on average how much more are men paid versus women. For us, that’s 11%.
The average in the law firms is up in the high 20s. But what Libby’s point was, that’s a reflection of the fact that you’ve got more women doing lower-paid jobs, and so have you got the gender balance right there? And have you got enough women doing senior roles? Now the senior roles we’re focusing on through our partner targets. But for these lower-order roles, such as administrative processing, these are being done by women.
And Libby’s view was we should actually start to really focus on that gender pay gap holistically to reflect the mix that we have of men and women doing different roles across the firm. I think that is really good advice.
Your children are adults now, but what was it like building your career when they were growing up?
My kids are now 27 and 25 now. My husband and I have been married 34 years this year, but from day one in our marriage, we’ve just been a partnership. Everything’s been shared. It wasn’t my responsibility to do the shopping or cooking. It was both of us. So we’ve had this genuine partnership and we both just rolled our sleeves up and did what had to be done. And that applied with the kids as well.
I appreciate that a lot of women are not in that situation, and that’s why I was really attracted to Libby Lyon’s recommendation around normalising flexible work. Giving men the opportunity to actually truly co-parent is the way it should be.
And what would you say to young women who are starting out in their career? What advice would you give them?
I like Sheryl Sandberg and her idea of ‘leaning in’ to opportunities. When you get an opportunity to step up into something new, you’re not going to know everything… because it’s new, you’re not going to have all the answers. And so that’s part of learning and ongoing development, so be prepared to lean into those opportunities and don’t discount yourself. Don’t undersell yourself to others by telling them all the reasons you’re not ready to do it. When others are prepared to back you, you gotta back yourself, be grateful for the opportunities, say ‘thank you, I won’t let you down,’ and lean into it. That’s probably my biggest piece of advice, and choose your significant other carefully is the other one.
Okay, let’s move onto a lighter subject now, what’s your corporate fashion style?
Because I travel so much, my preference is for dresses. I hate turning up somewhere and seeing 12 other people wearing what I’m wearing. I loved Leona Edmiston years ago, I loved her wrap dresses, the fabrics were amazing, and I got lots and lots of comments on them. People were asking me where I got the dresses, and then what happened? People started turning up to work… in the same dress as mine! I really like her dresses and I now need to find something else.
If I’m going overseas, I love wearing Australian designers like Carla Zampatti and her daughter Bianca Spender. My daughter’s a stylist and she’ll find me up-and-coming Australian labels to show off when I’m travelling. Then, when I’m in Australia I tend to wear stuff I bought overseas.
What about shoes? Do you have favourite brands?
I have a shoe guy in Hong Kong. You walk into this shop, it’s a little cave, with thousands of shoes all around you. And I take that heel, with this colour and that shape and create my own custom shoe. He draws your foot, and he makes them and then he ships them to you. So he’s fantastic.
How do you keep fit with your busy schedule?
I exercise most mornings. I find I can’t survive—I can’t maintain the pace and keep up my stamina. You’ve got to be physically fit to do a role like this. A high-performance job requires you to be physically very fit as well and mentally fit. So I go to the gym or go for a run or work out with a trainer, an intensive workout, at least an hour, five mornings a week. Or I go out cycling. I never skip breakfast. Otherwise I just get too hungry. And then I can power through a full day.
What’s a typical day like?
My day is usually meetings, functions and traveling. I do a lot of traveling interstate. Yesterday, I was in the Melbourne office in meetings all day. I’m on the board of Melbourne Business School so I had a meeting there. Then at the end of the day I drove to the airport. I’m very grateful for my lounge membership at Qantas—I had a very nice dinner at the Qantas lounge and then got on a plane to Sydney. Then after a good night’s sleep, I was back in the gym this morning. I’m in the Sydney office all day today, and then I’ll be back to the airport tonight, off to Brisbane. I’ve got a day in Brisbane tomorrow and then I’ll fly home at the end of the day and spend Friday in Melbourne. So that’s kind of the typical week.
So it’s typical for you to be traveling a lot?
Yeah, but frankly, these feel like bus trips to me because before I joined MinterEllison I had a Asia/Pacific role for Ernst & Young and I was traveling about nine to ten months of the year and it was all long hauls. So this is a walk in the park compared to what I was doing.
Are there any books or podcasts or business leaders that you follow that’s been helpful to you?
I’ve had the great privilege to attend Harvard University, Kellogg School of Management and INSEAD Business School and they’ve been life changing to me. I do read Harvard Business Review But you know what? It’s a bit weird…. the one podcast I listen to is The Minefield, with Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens. It discusses really interesting questions of ethics and moral philosophy. I love it and I listen to it every week.