Fifty percent female: BHP’s massive ambition for workplace gender diversity

Published: 21/10/2016

Originally published by Women’s Agenda – October 2016.

BHP's workforce is currently only 17.5% female.

BHP’s workforce is currently only 17.5% female.

 There are achievable targets, and then there are bold, ambitious goals that take significant work, effort and resources to achieve – but ultimately aim to really harness the potential of the entire population.

So I was stunned to see this goal from BHP Billiton, which operates in one of most male-dominated sectors, mining and resources.

The Australian Financial Review reports it has adopted a new goal (it’s not calling it a target) to see half of its workforce become female within nine years, across all levels including the board. They’re a long way off that in 2016, at just 17.5% female, across its 28,000-strong organisation.

Chief executive Andrew Mackenzie made the commitment in London at BHP’s annual general meeting. It’s an “aspiration goal” he said – one that’s not binding but will still see the group undergo “significant change”.

“It makes us more accountable; it underpins the depth of our commitment and it lets the world know we are serious,” the AFR quotes him as saying.

The aim is also to drive performance, with Mackenzie quoting research that gender diverse organisations perform 15% better. He added that without intervention, it would take BHP 30 years to reach 30% female representation.

This isn’t a quota, nor is it being called a target (some reports claim this is to avoid pushback from shareholders and other stakeholders). There are no significant consequences on a failure to meet the goal, aside from the company embedding some performance measures on the mark in the bonus packages of senior executives, and Mackenzie putting his reputation on the line for the goal. 

But it is a commitment, and it is a commitment the CEO is prepared to speak up about, to have printed in the media, and to position as the backbone of it recruitment and retention strategy moving forward.

In some sectors, a 50% female workforce wouldn’t be a problem .

But for a company like BHP, it’s going to require significantly transforming its hiring practices. It’ll also see serious resistance from those already firmly entrenched in the organisation, something Mackenzie added will need to be overcome by making diversity and inclusion a greater priority. “It will demand that we question our own biases when we make decisions, that we make our workplaces more flexible and that we challenge dated stereotypes about jobs in the resources industry,” said McKenzie. 

He added they will not “disadvantage anyone”, that they will instead give an equal opportunity to everyone, male or female. No man will see his job threatened, but women have been disadvantaged for a long time and the aim is to remove the unconscious bias that will allow decisions to be actually based on merit.  

Can BHP do it? It’s got nine years to make it happen, and will no doubt learn plenty of lessons along the way that can then be shared with other major employers across the world.