Gerry Harvey: peeling back the layers

"I would rather have a male," says Gerry Harvey of Harvey Norman following the resignation of ex AMP leader Catherine Brenner.

Predictably, Harvey’s comments provoked widespread anger. However, if we remove ourselves from the obvious emotion, Gerry was just being Gerry and does as Gerry does. And Gerry Harvey is an extremely successful business man. Like many ‘old school’ alpha male leaders, Harvey comes from an era of overt sexism and blatant discrimination in the workforce. Collaboration with female counterparts (if they existed) was rare and taking business counsel from a woman even less common. And while this doesn’t exonerate his position, it may point to some fundamental issues that still exist today. Despite the ground swell of support and progress made, the top levels of business leadership appear at times to be immune from change. After all, while legislation-based, take up on equality is unlikely to work with elite leaders who are seemingly free from the directives of HR policy and themselves resistant to progress. This leaves women who have broken through so many management barriers with yet another glass ceiling to confront. Maybe the answer is to wait for the dinosaurs to pass. Recent generations of men and women are more familiar with performance-based promotion and workplace equality, despite the fact that many gender stereotypes clearly remain in society. However, shareholder groups may have the greatest and most immediate role to play. If boards can handle the delicate balance between issues such as profitability, compliance and ethical trading, then workplace fairness and balance should be well within their remit. And if arguments around the relative effectiveness of diverse versus homogeneous teams fall on deaf ears, then perhaps the reality of lobby groups with block holdings in major companies may affect quicker and more permanent change.

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