Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Women in hard hats - Alcoa's diversity chief interviewed

Gena Lovett, 2007, then Plant Manager, Alcoa's Cleveland Works
Alcoa Inc, the miner and aluminium manufacturer with $25bn annual revenues, has recently won the 2013 Catalyst Award for the advancement of women in the workplace (together with Coca Cola and Unilever). 

Catalyst is of course one of the most active not-for-profits campaigning for diversity in the corporate world and its annual gongs are not only much sought-after, but hard-won.

Women are severely under-represented in mining companies. 

Since Australia introduced new corporate governance principles that required ASX-listed companies to disclose diversity data and objectives, mining companies have huddled at the bottom of the class. Of the 27 miners in the index, not one managed a "green" rating in the traffic light ranking: 20 rated red and just seven rated orange.

Of the seven FTSE 100 companies still to have all-male boards, five are in mining:  Antofagasta, Glencore International, Kazakhmys and Vedanta Resources,  Xstrata. 

Gena Lovett, chief diversity officer, Alcoa Inc
So how has Alcoa managed to swim against this male-dominated tide? Today I spoke to the company's chief diversity officer, Gena Lovett, to see what's their secret sauce.

Headhoncha: What's behind Alcoa's diversity success?

GL: The first thing that is absolutely critical is you have to have CEO commitment. It has to come from the top of the house. You can have a groundswell but it's not ging to gain any traction unless you have that CEO commitment. After he or she makes that commitment known, you set about putting the framework in.What's so courageous about what Klaus [Klaus Kleinfeld, chairman and chief executive of Alcoa Inc] did is he went right to what people treasure. You treasure what is measured and what's on your radar but you also treasure your pocket book. The very first thing was to say ' we don't have enough women; we don't have enough minorities.' In order to get more women through the door we are going to make it 10 per cent of the compensation. Immediately it became a business imperative – as important as our safety record and meeting financial metrics.

HH: How does that work in practice?

GL: I set a target for each of our three business groups and that cascades down to their presidents to their plant managers.That means we have a representation has a target and that is in our hiring, our developing and it's in our promoting and retention. These targets are global and across our businesses.

HH: What else is in place?

GL: The crown jewels in what we are doing isn't this compensation strategy. We have made inclusion at the core of our talent management system. Yes we can get women in the door, but we have to have a meaningful process to keep them. I heard a speaker define what diversity really means and it really resonated with me:

Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.

Inclusion is about how are we developing our females? How are they being promoted? Are they staying with us? Are they being included in our leadership programme?

If we have a leadership class - leadership is critical to advancing talent through the pipeline into positions of higher responsibility but if all the people being chosen are male then you have women being brought in but they're not being asked to dance.

We look for an over-sampling of diverse candidates - female candidates - throughout every rung of our five-level leadership classes.

HH: Is this positive discrimination?

GL: No I don't think so. I think we are guilty of inclusion - of asking everyone to dance because the white males aren't sitting out and becoming wallflowers. They're still dancing, being developed, being engaged.

This is not about doing something that's morally correct. This is about making sure we are in tapping into every single piece of talent out there. We're hungry for that.

HH: Some employers say they can't include more women because suitably qualified women don't exist?

GL: There is a shortage in the US of STEM female graduates. We can't just wait for candidates to come to us. We use our foundation dollars and we are in the colleges recruiting STEM graduates but it goes further. We are in high schools and elementary schools because the problem [for girls is] while they have the aptitude, if they don't see mentors and role models, they are discouraged. 

We are in heavy manufacturing. We have smelters. We have mines. We have operating plants that are tough, physically-demanding job assignments.Some women want no part of that.

HH: What percentages of senior management tiers are now women?

GL: Executive women comprise 19 per cent of our total and at our mid-level of professional managers, women make up 25.3 per cent. We also have women on our board.

[Alcoa's board includes three independent directors who are women – Kathryn Fuller, Chair of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; Dr Judith Gueron and Patricia Russo, ex-CEO of Alcatel-Lucent and lead director for GM.]

HH: And are women concentrated in support roles - HR, Finance, Marketing -  or are they in line roles too?

GL: Absolutely not! I myself have 20+ years in the manufacturing business including P&L operations responsibility. They chose me for this role because I bring that operations background. I automatically bring credibility.I can walk into a plant and say, 'This is why diversity is important, this is the business case.'

HH: Do you have any special support or mentoring programmes focused on women only?

GL: Not really. They - we - have to have a seat at the table. We have to be part of the leadership programme, part of the succession plan discussions, we have to be a part of having mentors. That's a tool that wasn't available to top talent but we've put that in place. It's not about special programmes -it's about making sure women are included. 

Finally, though, I don't want to leave the impression we're perfect. This is a journey and we are on that journey. We can't stop. There's more to do.

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