Interview with Matthew Gribble: Global recruitment companies keep an eye on the ball when it comes to the “Female Empowerment Agenda”

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The 100% Project is a not for profit organisation and our vision is to see 100% of Australia’s leadership potential, female and male, equally contributing to our social and economic future.

So, where are we on the path to this vision? And in particular, what impact has the current pandemic had on gender equality in the workplace? In this episode, our The 100% Project host Hilary Lamb speaks with Matthew Gribble, the Regional Managing Director of the Page Group, headquartered in Sydney, to explore how COVID-19 has been affecting leaders approach to gender equality in the workplace.

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Hilary: Most organisations around the world have been impacted in some way by COVID-19. Early research has shown that women have been negatively affected more than men for a variety of different reasons, including job losses, reduced hours, resignations due to home-schooling of children and closure of childcare facilities. We want to find out from leaders themselves, how the pandemic has affected women’s progress towards equality in corporate Australia and around the world. And whether women’s leadership opportunities have suffered a setback or not.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging and paying my respects to the traditional custodians of the land on which we are recording today. I’d like to pay my respects to their elders’ past, present, and emerging and acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who may listen to this podcast. I also pay my respects to your elders’ past, present and emerging.

My name is Hilary Lamb and I chair The 100% Project. We are a not-for-profit organisation and our vision is to see 100% of Australia’s leadership potential, female and male, equally contributing to our social and economic future. So, where are we on the path to this vision? And in particular, what impact has the current pandemic had on gender equality in the workplace? I’m speaking today with Matthew Gribble, who is the Regional Managing Director of the Page Group, headquartered in Sydney.

Welcome Matt. And thank you for speaking with me.


Matt: Thanks Hillary.


Hilary: Can you begin by telling us a bit about your role and your organisation, please?


Matt: Yeah, absolutely. So, Page Group is an FTSE 250 listed recruitment company. We’re a global organisation, we’ve got some 6,000 consultants across 36 countries at last count.


Hilary: So, the first question, I guess, is will leaders pay attention to gender equality as they rebuild their businesses after COVID-19, what’s your view of this?


Matt: Look, I think it is such an, um, important agenda. I think the, the business community has gotten behind and certainly in uh, an industry like recruitment, where we see a very high female representation. It’s a really important uh, issue for us and I think certainly at Page Group, we’re not going to take our eye off the ball when it comes to this uh, important female empowerment agenda.


Hilary: So, do you think leaders will want to see some tangible benefits if they’re going to be focused on gender equality as they recover from COVID-19?


Matt: As with any strategy that you’re employing within your business, you want to see a return on investment. The return on investment that we get from our female workforce, our female leaders is very tangible. We’ve done a number of things. I have had a number of years to, to drive that, from um, the way we manage maternity leave within our businesses and moving to an industry best practice through to um the training and development, coaching, and mentoring of our female professionals.

And we’re seeing increasing um, return on that with, with every passing year.


Hilary: We worked with you on a few different occasions so we know that Page Group is extremely supportive of family issues. What specifically have you done or a planning to do in your business to ensure the focus on gender equality is maintained during COVID-19, which may be a little bit different?


Matt: Look, I think COVID-19 is an interesting one in, in that it presents challenges for many, many businesses from a pure P and L perspective. But if we look at the way that we do business and many businesses are now operating, the ability to work in a more agile environment. So, working from home with remote access, where by virtue of the nature of that way of working, one needs to be more focused on outcomes than being present in the office; on the output than I guess typical KPIs that some people might be measured upon.  And I actually think this is a real positive for the way people work, the way parents work. I’m a parent, my wife works full time and we’ve got four children under the age of 11. So, during COVID we’ve had them doing home-schooling.

Which presented some challenges when you’re both working full time at the same time from home, but the remote access that I have from Page, my wife works at UNICEF, that remote access that she had there meant that we could juggle those parental responsibilities as well as work slightly different hours.

And, get the job done and get a job done really well. So, in a strange kind of way, I feel like COVID is going to be helpful in showing businesses around the world, really that there is a different way of working that perhaps supports parents in general, but obviously with women shouldering more parental responsibility in the world that we live in still than fathers, for the most part.

I think that is really beneficial for the way our female professionals and leaders can work in our business and other businesses.


Hilary: A lot of businesses struggled to give them the right tools and resources to work remotely at the beginning of COVID-19. How easily did you at the Page Group manage that transition? Is it something that you’re planning to maintain in the future as there’s a benefit, especially to parents and women in particular?


Matt: We managed the transition to remote working quite seamlessly by virtue of a big investment in recent years of cloud-based products like Microsoft Teams that enable connectivity without being physically present with one another so that the cut across was done really, really well.

We got a lot of positive feedback from the team on that. And it taught me that there is a different way of working. I think at times my work habits were too office based. And, I’ve seen the productivity that can come from this dynamic working approach that we’re now embracing.

And I think that will continue on into the future. Yeah. I think that the office has an important place in any business, certainly a professional services business, but we’ve seen great productivity from people working remotely and I fully plan to utilise that moving forward, not just in response to COVID.


Hilary: So, do you think you personally will be working from home a bit now?


Matt: Yeah, absolutely. We’re giving people the ability to choose and empowering them to work more flexibly and I work in the office a good few days a week, and then on days where I want the focus on perhaps more strategic issues and stuff that doesn’t require me to interact with the team as much I’ll work from home.


Hilary: As we’ve been looking for gender equality in corporations throughout Australia, we’ve been advocating for remote working for quite some years. COVID has obviously forced the issue and given more people the opportunity to do that. But one of the issues we found was that the line managers struggled to performance manage, to mentor, to coach their people, their teams. Has this something that’s come up within Page Group?


Matt: That’s a common objection. “What if we had five new team members in that team that they couldn’t possibly work from home!”. And I think the more you discuss that, the more you realise what is possible in a remote working capacity.

I think the stuff that you can do really well at home, it’s a case of having the conversations I’m having with my leaders. “Well, let’s look at that. Let’s break that down and newer people in that training and development phase can learn from home.”

And one of the great examples that COVID is provided for me to underline that with the people I’m talking to is my kids. My kids had never studied remotely. They from one day to the next, moved into a home learning environment with Google docs and some great teachers.

My kids kept learning and I really thought that was great. I remind my people that, you know what, working remotely is not a second-best option to being in the office. We’ve got to make that work for us as well as being in the office, work for us.


Hilary: It’s interesting isn’t it as we’re learning something alongside our children for a change, rather than leading the way and then coaching them through it. I think probably the reverse has been the situation in some instances, that the kids are handling this better than some of the adults.

I was reading an article from Melinda Gates this morning, she’s saying we should demand more from our leaders as we start emerging from COVID-19, we need to expect more. And one of the quotes I’ve got here is that “the way to build back is to put women straight at the centre, because guess what? They’re already at the centre”.

She was referring to things like child care, aged care, homes, running the family, et cetera. I guess the question is, should we go further than just looking at gender equality? Should we prioritise women’s issues more? Should we put them at the forefront? It’s harder to separate work from home now, especially during the pandemic, as we’re working from home. As we rebuild organisations and life in general, should we be putting more focus on women’s issues than we have before, even prioritising it in advance of just gender equality?


Matt: Some of those issues you raised there are great enablers of gender equality and female equality in the workplace. When childcare was suspended, females bore the brunt of that in the primary care roles. I think statistically we absolutely need to put issues like that at the centre and say, okay, well, what are we going to do about removing that bias? Levelling that playing field more.


Hilary: A lot of reports, significantly Bain, McKinsey, have demonstrated with their research that equal management teams outperform those led by either majority female, or majority male. So, at this point in time, it’s really important that gender equality is not missed. It’s not overlooked as businesses start to recover.

And I think expecting more from leaders, maybe some risk taking, taking chances on some appointments that may not necessarily have gone through in the first instance, maybe that will benefit us in the long run.  from the Page Group, have there been any silver linings that have come out of the pandemic?


Matt: The pandemic hit the recruitment industry pretty hard. So, it’s hard to see silver linings just yet. I think that the silver linings, if I was pushed on that point, for us would be that opening our eyes to a new way of working, which I think engages our workforce even more than the way we worked in the past, the ability to choose what works well in the office and take advantage of that from an office-based perspective. And then what do I do well from home and do that. So, I think that was a real positive.

We’re a large global corporation and we have a strong balance sheet and funding lines so we’re able to invest through that cycle. That doesn’t mean that we invest without very careful consideration, but through this downturn, a lot of our industry are facing greater challenges than us from a sustainability perspective, from a financial point of view. So certainly, for the people working for me, the sustainability of the organisation has been a real silver lining.

And I think it’s helped people from a mental health perspective from taking a long-term view. They’re not sitting there going, “are we going to be here from one day to the next?” which unfortunately is the position of a lot of smaller businesses that are out there at the moment.


Hilary: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that you know, a lot of mental health issues, as you say, have occurred from people losing their jobs and not having that longer term view of at least having a job and an income at the end of it. As a leader in a recruitment and talent acquisition organisation, have you had any anecdotal evidence of what any of your clients, how your clients, may be approaching any of this? Or have they been strictly just focusing on recruitment?


Matt: I don’t believe I’ve seen this agenda, the female agenda getting lowered on the priority list. That’s for sure. Indeed, I’ve seen the opposite. Obviously, I can’t name, organisations here, but a large Australian corporation came to us in the early stages of COVID-19 actually and said, we think there’s an opportunity for us to go out and find some great female talent in this market.

We think we’ve got something really good to offer. This as an organisation that’s in a space that is benefiting from the downturn. And they took the opportunity to go out there proactively to the market and seek to attract some great female talent, which was an important agenda item for them. They needed more representation in their leadership ranks, from a female perspective. So that was one really great example of an organisation taking a proactive stance.

When I’m out there talking to my clients, at the moment, and we’re talking about a brief, it is very common that the desire to have real diversity, which is not just gender diversity, but gender diversity is always high up on that list, in the recruitment process and the shortlisting process is something that’s very much tabled.


Hilary: A bit of an aside question. When you are talking to your clients about recruitment, do you offer any suggestions or advice about having equal number of candidates, male and female candidates in any list, any short list that you provide to them?


Matt: Every briefing with a client is typically quite different, but we’re certainly big advocates on the value of diversity. A common questioning that we’ll run through with a client will be to get a breakdown of their leadership team, we’re often recruiting for leadership teams.

And that prompts a good conversation that we will always have around diversity. “Okay. This is your leadership team at the moment. What are your diversity objectives within that?”  We’re obviously well versed in the statistics around, whether it’s gender diversity, ethnic diversity, all of the forms of diversity and be able to talk to them around running a recruitment process that captures real diversity and the benefit that subsequent hiring decision and the diversity that brings if it’s done time and time again, and actually delivers diversity across these senior leadership teams, which is still lacking in many industries. But if they can commit to that, you can’t guarantee that the first time they do it, we’ll have a diverse hire, but if they commit to doing it consistently, then the diversity of those leadership teams should improve.

And the benefits of that we’ll share with our client as a matter of course, absolutely.


Hilary: That sounds good. At least you’re asking the question and making them perhaps think a bit more about it and “I’m offering up some good female talent” which again, sometimes is a question as “where do we find the females? How do we attract them?”,

There’s one question, you talked about sustainability in your organisation and trying to keep your employees during COVID, have you found that you have lost many women in your organisation through resignation or people needing to take time out for parenting or aged care issues? Have you had many females leave your business?


Matt: 2020 has been a particularly challenging year for a lot of businesses. Recruitment industry is no exception and we’re no exception within the recruitment industry.

So, we’ve seen some people that have chosen to leave the business. And obviously we’ve made some structural changes during this period as well. We look very closely at our female and male representation within the business at all levels and we haven’t seen that from a female participation perspective at all during the downturn.

So yes, we’ve seen people leaving. Yes. We’ve seen females leave within that, but statistics, we have improved our ratios during that period of time.


Hilary: I know the Page Group you have some very strong family-friendly and female-friendly strategies throughout your business. So, I’m sure that you will all be doing your best to retain that female talent.


Matt: At the start of the crisis the first objective we had was we wanted to protect our Page people. We wanted to protect our organisation and we wanted to protect our community.

We haven’t gone through and had a cut and burn strategy of cutting heads drastically. We think we’ve protected our organisation and by doing the work that we do, which is all about getting people great jobs, we’re playing our part in the community as well.

And that certainly supports the female agenda because that’s something that we talk to all of our clients about from a diversity point of view.


Hilary: Matt. Thank you so much for your time today.


Matt: Thank you for the opportunity to be part of the podcast. I would just add that if there are any female professionals or leaders out there that are looking for opportunities at the moment, whether you’ve found yourself not working at the moment or you’re in a job, but you’re looking for that next challenge, we’d love to talk with you. We are very passionate about finding great opportunities for candidates in the market, and I’d welcome the opportunity to refer you through to one of my team members.


Hilary: Wonderful. Thanks, Matt.