Interview with Michele Garra: Helping Australians stay connected during a global pandemic

Support The 100 percent Project Make a Donation
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 host Hilary Lamb speaks with Mich Gara, Connected Home and Business Executive at Telstra, to hear her perspective on how COVID-19 has affected gender equality.

Listen to the podcast.




Hilary: My name is Hilary Lamb and today I’m speaking with Mich Gara, Connected Home and Business Executive at Telstra, to hear her perspective on how COVID-19 has affected gender equality. So welcome Mich, thank you for speaking with me.


Mich: Well, thanks, Hilary. Thanks very much for inviting me.


Hilary: You’re very welcome. So, can you begin by telling us a bit about your role at Telstra?


Mich: Sure. I joined Telstra about five years ago and I had the privilege of leading the media business for a period of time and then doing a piece of strategy and innovation for the Consumer and Small Business Group, which was great fun. A lot of 5G work, a lot of changing the way we take our products to market.

And then for the last two years I’ve been leading the, what is essentially, the broadband and voice services to our consumer residential customers, and then also our small business customers. And obviously with the significant change of the NBN and the evolution of 5G for your home connectivity, there’s quite a lot happening in this space.

And, of course, we’ve got to also shut down the legacy copper network, which is suffering from diseconomies of scale. So, lots happening and lots of things to do for our customers with all that change.


Hilary: It sounds like it. And I guess, especially with COVID-19, with so many people working from home, working remotely, their reliance on 5G and technology has increased exponentially, which probably puts a little bit more pressure on your business as well.


Mich: We’ve seen a 65% increase in usage during the daytime, so that’s the materiality of the change.


Hilary: That’s enormous, isn’t it? 65%!  And who would have thought that would have been the effect, the subsequent effects of COVID-19? I’m interested to hear how it has actually affected your business, apart from the 65% increase. I guess you’re one of the organisations that actually hasn’t suffered, but maybe the similar problem is that the growth and the expectation from your customers throughout this period, that they’re looking for additional services, as opposed to a decline in business. Has that been added pressure to yourself and the leadership team?


Mich: Probably the biggest pressure we’ve had is that tension of customers needing more broadband and more services. And then also our reliance on the overseas call centres to not only, you know, just basic contact type activities, but also assurance. So, we’re on the NBN network predominantly now, by the year end 92% of Australians will be on the NBN, and there’s NBN has faults and of course those calls you would normally go to those call centres.

What we’ve been able to do is to hire about 1,500 Australians to now take those calls. That’s been a big change for us in COVID, but a fantastic one. So, it’s kind of disrupted our business, I think in a really positive way, because we’ve been trying to figure out how to have less reliance on those offshore resources and have more jobs for Australians.


Hilary: Wow! So that has been positive, but obviously that growth brings with it some problems as well.

I guess one of the questions I want to ask you is, will leaders pay attention to gender equality as they rebuild their businesses after COVID 19? Well, that doesn’t sound as though that’s an issue for you, the rebuilding, but maybe it’s just addressing the issues that this pandemic has thrown at us in different ways.

So, can you talk to me a bit about gender equality at Telstra and how maybe this pandemic has affected gender equality, if at all?


Mich: Yeah.  I guess the first thing I would say is that, and this might surprise listeners, but one of the things that sort of was an extremely positive revelation to me when I arrived at Telstra was the level of gender equity, not only in the management ranks.

If you have a look at the senior leadership team that reports to Andy Penn, there’s four women out of seven, eight. So, we have an even distribution at the top of the company. In fact, we are obviously working on very high targets to close that gap throughout.

What has essentially been a technology driven capability, and so with that it came with a lot of imbalance in that gender diversity. So I’m a proud member of our Diversity and Inclusion Council at Telstra, and we’ve been working really hard over the last few years to try and support more women through the pathways that they need as they choose to have a family and choose to have more flexible working conditions.

And the other sort of surprise to me was actually the incredible workplace benefits that Telstra has, and I’ll give you an example. We have a policy around all roles flex. So, if I wanted to move to Byron Bay with my family on Monday nobody would bat an eyelid. I would be able to do my job from Byron Bay, and not be impacted at all in terms of perceptions or judgment.

The other thing I love is that I have had situations where I was running off a golf course, and I kept the senior executive waiting and I said, “well, I’m sorry I was honestly on a golf course, I was out having my morning walk”, and there’s just no judgment around that, that it really is a very lived value at Telstra – that you should have a life and you should fit your work in with that life.

And so that’s really important for particularly our female leaders who need to balance family and work.  That’s the big thing I hear from our team, is that they find that invaluable.


Hilary: It’s really interesting, isn’t it? I think you hear a lot of companies that she espousing those views that all roles flex, or ‘flexibility as a core strategy within our business’. You know, you’re met with frowns and questions when some of the people in middle management, and below, actually try and implement some of those strategies. So, it’s great to hear that the leaders are role modeling that.

So, does this story, that you said about being on the golf course, I thought maybe you were playing golf, but having a walk on the golf… you actually played golf? Oh, brilliant, love it!


Mich: Been one of my management strategies for my well-being during COVID, because the working day does feel like it’s extended a little bit. And so, I’m trying to balance it at the other end by doing that for a couple of hours a couple of mornings a week.


Hilary: It is true, isn’t it? I think that’s one of the outcomes of remote working that people don’t know when to switch off. So, I guess that’s one of the downsides of having that remote working and additional flexibility. But it is important when you’re looking at gender equality, most definitely.

What do you think are some of the tangible benefits that gender equality initiatives bring to your organisation? Why is that something that Andy Penn, as the CEO and the leadership team, why do you want to achieve that apart from being the right thing to do?


Mich: It represents our customer base for a start. I mean any organisation that isn’t thinking about the customer base, and representing the diverse and different needs of the customer, then you can only understand them by having them represented in your workplace.

And as I say it was a very engineering led, and all of those types of roles had very historically been, male dominated. STEM, for example, obviously is an example of that. So, we are doubling down actually on gender equity in FY 21, so, it’s a perfect time to have this conversation with you.

We’ve decided to include more technology roles as a priority with the female population. Things we’ve done is we’ve offered scholarships for women in STEM, through our education partnerships and we’re recruiting more women through the early career pathways program.

In fact, we have a disproportionate number of women in the graduate program this year and so they’re really tangible choices we’re making about flexing to do that. And in fact, what I didn’t know until recently, when I joined the Diversity and Inclusion Council, is that we’re already acknowledged as a leading employer of women.

Last year we ranked, I think, number five in the Equileap global list of employers leading in gender equity. Gender balance is one aspect, but we think it’s the area that we know we want to continue to do more on in the year ahead. It’s actually one of the priorities for the team.

We’ve got targets around the percentage of females, by the way not just women, but also a more diverse talent group. One of the other things we’re doing is around neurodiverse recruitment. So we can have strategies to source and attract talent of a bio-diverse sort of nature; people on the spectrum and people with a different way of thinking.

As I say, round out what we think is going to give us a better outcome for our customers and our shareholders.


Hilary: Part of the strategy is obviously business competitiveness and profitability; a greater relationship with your clients, better understanding of some of their issues, female lead issues and diversity lead issues. Are you finding that is embraced throughout the organisation? The leadership has its strategies, and they’re the ones that they’re trying to implement and role model.

Are you finding any resistance within the organisation, or is everybody really accepting that this is how you’re going to keep growing and remaining competitive?


Mich: Another tangible example, in any recruitment pool there has to be 50% women in the recruitment pool that you’re looking at for any particular role. So, the only thing that could still be going wrong, I think is around behavioural aspects where people might still think that there’s a bit more relationship bias. Some people still have a lack of awareness of their own behaviours.

Through the diversity and inclusion work that we’re doing, we’ve just done a survey of the business unit that I work in and pulled out all of those concerns that people have. And we’ve sat together as a leadership team and a graded the changes that we want to make.

Whether their perception or reality, they’re the reality of our team and they’re lived work experience, and so we’ve signed up and made commitments around the things that we would like to really change the perception around. So, that’s some of the examples, but as part of this decision in 21, we’ve actually set a really bold ambition to become the number one incubator of female technology talent by 2025 and so that is a big call.

There’s a lot of global brands that are trying to establish their credentials in Australia, and in the technology space. We think it’s a very competitive marketplace to attract that talent and develop them and give them pathways.

And in fact, one of our stated activities is to identify and invest in the internal female technology talent, as well as bring in external talent, continue to provide more diverse profiles. As I said, not just in gender, but also newer diversity and indigenous and then also disabled workforce as well.


Hilary: That’s pretty bold, I guess that is a very bold ambition. And it’s great to hear, especially in a technology company because they are the areas where women are trying to enter, but they do come up against some of that unconscious bias. With your management teams, at some of the middle manager levels, are you actively embracing unconscious bias training, or do you have any strategies to educate the current workforce on why you’re implementing some of these gender initiatives?


Mich: Our diversity and inclusion work actually have a number of programs in it. We’ve had a brilliant Connected Women group at Telstra for a number of years that is a supportive community where we do mentoring and we host lunches, and breakfasts and presenters.

So, we really do have it very considered program to build that community and support each other. And so, for me, as a leader, I think supporting and reaching down and helping people up the ladder is actually one of the most important things that I can do.

I have a very broad range of people I mentor at Telstra. It is probably about 70% women, so there’s a little bias there. As I said, we have conversations about unconscious bias, because the reality is that a lot of our workforce have been at Telstra for a period of time and they don’t even have that sort of level of self-awareness.

We have training on that, and we’ve even had a centrepiece at one of our executive meetings about a year and a half ago on that unconscious bias, and what we don’t really understand about ourselves.


Hilary: Yeah, it’s quite insightful isn’t it, when you get people to self-reflect on what some of their conscious and unconscious biases are, and start unpacking them and having those open conversations. It’s a really positive thing to get to know each other, and also to come together and agree on what some of the strategic priorities are.

But I guess with the growth you talked about, having 65% growth, during this period of time in COVID, has it been a struggle to maintain gender equality as one of your priorities during this period of time?


Mich: I don’t think so. I’ll give you some of the objectives that we’re focused on in 21 and I think you’ll see pretty clearly that there’s a broad range of them. I think what we’ve tried to do in terms of supporting all of our workers at home, whether they’re male or female, is just having an enormous amount of flexibility.

So, people’s ability to have walking meetings, people’s ability to turn their camera off, or deal with the kids. I was in a presentation with a very senior group, and her son started playing a recorder and everyone just laughed.

It’s very accepted in unusual times, and particularly people who’ve needed to change the meeting plans, or change their day, because they’ve been home-schooling. They’re not female specific issues, I think they’re really more us trying to support, as much as possible, our team.

And in fact, one of the other policy areas is around parental leave. We’ve got 16 weeks of parental leave for females and males and then you’re entitled to your normal 12 months parental leave, and paid leave as well.  People obviously have used COVID to take that time off to support their family, and have that flexibility around being able to home-school.

We also have a extremely flexible carer’s leave policy, so it’s just no questions asked. And then we also have a lot of what we call My Coach, which is an external service for people that just need to talk to somebody or need some strategies to cope.

Having a resource that is really tapped into best practice on what those strategies could entail, or things that are working, and bring those to our people when they need them, has never been more important. So that’s been something our team have loved, so that flexible working policy was like ‘work the working hours that you want, work in the locations you want, have reduced hours if you like’.

We’ve got, for example, the EA community at Telstra. I have executive support and they job share, and that works fantastically and so those things are really pretty commonplace now. There’s no, as I said, judgment around any of that.


Hilary: It sounds as though Telstra is really leading the way, and you probably could have written the manual on some of this, so congratulations on some of the initiatives that you have there.

Are you finding, obviously flexibility is a really big thing for parents in general, both women and men, but are you finding that there has been any female attrition during COVID? Have you lost women during this process, or have you managed to shore up their roles due to the flexibility that you’ve been able to provide to them?


Mich: I was trying to seek that data, because I’ll just be very transparent – we have also been working through what we call our “T 22 Program,” and so we have been making some significant changes to the shape of our workforce, and had announced about two years ago that we would reduce 11,000 roles in the organisation, and then hire back 1500 in the new capabilities that we needed, the STEM areas that I was referencing earlier. We’ve had some waves of changes to our workforce, and I’m not aware of anything disproportionate to gender in those reductions.

And I’m also not aware of any gender impact in terms of COVID. In fact, in the spectrum of areas that I work in, which is working with the consumer, small business team, working with the product and technology team, I’m not aware of any female that has had to leave the organization because they didn’t have the flexibility that they needed during this time.


Hilary: That’s interesting, your comment there Mich. I saw Andy Penn on The Business the other day talking about the proposed new structure for Telstra. And obviously, there’s a way to go yet, but do you think that gender will be incorporated into any of the changes?


Mich: So that’s quite a corporate structural change, right?  It doesn’t change the fact that we’ve got our workforce doing the work. But you know what we have, as I said done in FY 21, we’ve got these very specific goals around the STEM talent, particularly really targeting some of the younger talent, bringing in those early career pathways, both through our graduate program and then our hiring policies.

Then also identifying and investing the female talent that we have in the organisation. Our objectives: there’s the female representation in executive management, female representation in the next sort of level of management roles, female representation as a total, female representation in shortlist and interviews.

They’re very specific targets with teeth, and we hit those. We hit the targets that we had set last year, and they’re really bold targets for this year across those objectives. I feel really confident, and Andy is an incredible supporter of women.


Hilary: I guess tech has traditionally always been a bit of a challenge for women getting into it.  So, some of those initiatives there will promote women in those organisations. Are you finding that you’ve got enough women applying for those positions?


Mich: With setting a 50% objective in the pool, that is sometimes the challenge. It isn’t that people aren’t prepared to have 50% of women in the pool, we can’t attract the applicants. So, we have had to be a little bit more creative about doing that. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve had to really take more deliberate steps to access those pathways; through university partnerships and our other partnerships that allow us to access more of those talent pools.


Hilary: So, I guess I’ll just finish with a question, have there been any silver linings with your business relating to gender equality from COVID-19?

Just bearing in mind that your services have been more in demand rather than less, but is there anything specific to the last 10 months or so within Australia that has had an impact in relation to gender equality?


Mich: The most important thing we’ve been able to do is to help Australians stay connected, so that they could be really productive at home, at a time when their family needed them to be home. So, imagine if we’re all in Melbourne, in those lockdown conditions, you don’t have the connectivity that you need to actually continue to be employed and earn an income for your family.

And so that has been incredibly important, and we’ve been really active and trying to come up with different solutions, so working from home technology solutions that enable our customers to do that. Then that corporate level, at a customer level, I do feel that we’ve been able to step up and do that. We can see that in a number of customers we’ve connected and retained through that period.

I guess on a personal level, I would say it’s been a fantastic experience for me.   do work pretty long hours, and I’ve been around a lot more. My daughter has been doing the HSC, and so it’s just been incredible to be here for her, to be able to support her, take her cups of tea and a bowl of fruit, and be there for her during a really tough period.

And so, I think COVID has been pretty interesting for connectivity, and communications, and where our country needs to be, so that we can have a really flourishing, digital life. The huge surge in streaming, entertainment and those other things families at home really need during these times. I think we’ve advanced the digital adoption by about seven years; I think is the quote, in six months.


Hilary: A couple of things came out for me as you were talking there, is that this has been a reminder about the importance of work-life balance, and how we can effectively work without having to be actually physically in the office all of the time.

I was invited to an event today, which is a physical event in Canberra. My first reaction was, “but not on Zoom? How come you expect me actually to rock up to a physical event?”. Now, I don’t know how we will transition back, or whether we will transition back, but I think it has really opened our eyes. As you say, it’s pre-empted that next seven years of slow progress towards understanding how important it is to have that work-life balance.


Mich: We actually had that conversation in a leadership meeting, because we’ve been invited to do something important next week. The executive was saying, I don’t want to impose on the team that they actually feel that they’ve got to come to that workshop. And we all agreed that the basic policy is ‘it’s up to the employee..

We’d never asked them to be uncomfortable; we’d never want them to do something that didn’t suit them. We just recently surveyed our employee base, and they used to work at home two days a week before COVID and what they’re saying is they think, at the moment, that it will suit them to work at home four days a week.

And we’re just fine with that.


Hilary: So, I think there’s some positives that have come out of it.  Let’s wait and see what 2021 brings for us, but thank you so much for talking to me today, Mich.  You’ve got some amazing initiatives, which I think a lot of organisations can learn from. So, congratulations on that and hope it all goes well.


Mich: Thanks Hilary. And thanks for the chat. I really enjoyed it.