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Interview with Giam Swiegers: Lessons learned about advancing women in the workplace

Australian interview, February 2013

Advancing women in the workplace: What’s the view like from the top?  Giam has been CEO of Deloitte Australia for the past ten years and continues to be the driving force behind the advancement of women at the firm. Under his leadership, in 2012 Deloitte was recognised for the 11th successive year as an “Employer of Choice for Women” by EOWA* as well as being awarded “Inclusive Workplace of the Year” in the AHRI Diversity Awards.

Giam was invited to join the Male Champions of Change (MCC) group in 2010 by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick. This group was formed to harness the individual and collective influence of leading male CEOs and Chairpersons to drive strategies to progress gender equality. The central aim of this group is to ensure the issue of women’s representation in leadership is elevated on the national business agenda.  

A man of focus and determination, Giam’s insights reflect his passion, courage and spirit of continuous improvement.

The Gender Agenda: Where to start?

Reflecting on his work at Deloitte and with the MCC, Giam shares that he is “…very proud of the fact that we had the courage to put this on the agenda in 2003 when it was not a popular topic yet. Today, and especially over the past two years, it has become fashionable for leaders to take a position on this topic, in fact almost dangerous not to. Back in 2003, we were amongst very few people who cared about gender diversity and, as a firm, have received so much credit for our work over the years.” The Deloitte leadership team at that time recognised “We think that we have a problem. We think we can have a competitive advantage if we can fix it. And we are going to fix it.”

Initiatives and actions: Is there a recipe for success in achieving gender diversity?

“That’s a really difficult question and I have been asked this so often” Giam is quick to respond. He believes that it is not just one initiative that has helped Deloitte earn its credibility, but the continued effort and the consistency of the messages that have come through at every level of the organisation.

Deloitte’s “Inspiring Women” program which Giam introduced to the firm in 2004, and runs with Margaret Dreyer, is something to which he gives a lot of credit.  The program includes a full suite of initiatives for assisting women in the workplace such as mentoring, flexible work arrangements, training and the Deloitte Business Woman of the Year (DBWY) program. The DBWY program was originally designed to show male partners the incredible female talent available in the firm. “If you now look at our almost 100 female partners, about 30% came through the DBWY program. I am sure a lot of them would have made it regardless. But this figure suggests that it is something about the program that helped us succeed” Giam reflects.

The overall success of Deloitte’s gender diversity initiatives has been reflected in the increasing number of female partners. In 2004, less than 5% of Deloitte Australia's partners were female. By 2012, that percentage had increased to just under 20%.

Challenges along the way: Not all fair sailing

Success, however, has not been without challenges and criticism.  In particular, Deloitte’s focus on gender was criticised by people within and outside the firm. Whatever position he took to promote women in the organisation, Giam noted  “it seemed it was going to annoy those people who thought you should do more, and others who believed there was no need for a program such as the Deloitte Business Woman of the Year”. With any audience or conversation, Giam recalls that “it is always hard to determine how many people are on each side. At Deloitte, we had a lot of people who thought I should go further. But we also had a lot of young females who were upset that we even had a program like this. These women felt that they were equal to men and that they didn’t need an initiative to promote them in any unconventional way across the firm”.

Last year Giam and one of the 2012 DBWY finalists, Lucy Buchanan, were presenting to a large group of high school students. A girl in Year 10 asked Lucy “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, that you feel the need to participate in a program like this? Don’t you see yourself as an equal to men?”. “How about that?” Giam remarks.

”Besides those challenges, I have been very proud of the progress we have made to date, I am proud of the fact that we still live up to our mantra of ‘Soft on people, tough on performance’. If individuals struggle to perform, we continue to have equally tough conversations with everyone regardless of whether they are male or female.”

Giam’s participation in the MCC program has also not been short of criticism. He has received hate mail. In particular there seems to have been a misconception about the name and the purpose the group being “a bunch of arrogant men that think they can change women’s problems”.

Male Champions of Change: Energy and influence

Besides the challenges, Giam explains that being part of the MCC program “… has been a fantastic experience. Particularly because I am sitting around the table with other like-minded men who all have a different reason for being there”. He adds, “I am learning that there is no one right answer and that everybody is struggling with the challenge of gender diversity. It is all about progress as no-one has the recipe. However, as long as you try and you are willing to debate it and learn from mistakes, then you can make progress.”

Some of the unexpected insights Giam gained through being part of the program included seeing the different motivations driving MCC members in relation to the advancement of women in their respective organisations. “It goes from people like me who started with a business case and thought about gender diversity because the talent wasn’t there; to people who had a mother who was a very competent person that struggled to have a fair career option; to guys with daughters who want to ensure that their daughters would get the same opportunities in their careers as their sons would.”

Giam adds “Once I understood that people had different starting points, I realised that I had to listen differently. I had a clear view of what we had to do at Deloitte but this didn’t mean that it was the same driving force for other key leaders in the group.  It is not important why you decided to get involved with the initiative.  What is important is that you are willing and committed to effect positive change.”

A personal journey

Acknowledging the impact people’s personal journey has on supporting and driving diversity initiatives has been a powerful insight that made Giam reflect how his personal experiences have influenced his view of the world. Having faced difficulty joining the firm as an Afrikaans speaking South African when it was not customary for Deloitte in South Africa to take Afrikaans speakers, Giam struggled to be accepted and succeed. When he wanted to move to Australia, some of the Australian executive team were initially opposed to taking on an Afrikaans speaker and that made his transfer challenging. It was then that Giam understood that “if you are going to compete in an environment where one group sets the rules, you can either fight the rules or learn how to beat them by playing their rules. My only approach was: if I wanted to succeed I had to beat them with their own rules, not fight to change the rules”.

“My personal experience has significantly influenced my view of the world and had serious implications for our women’s initiative and the significant changes I made to the team that was leading Deloitte at the time I became CEO”. While Giam believes that it could a lot easier for a leadership team to fix the blame instead of fixing the problem, he thought that “the blame was pretty clear but we would not achieve anything by just fixing blame  We set out to help women succeed and I am proud of our achievements.”

Setting targets: Do they work?

Giam reflects, “I’m hoping that at Deloitte we have come closer to actually ‘fixing the problem’ but there remain a lot of organisations and women’s initiatives that are still ‘fixing the blame’. It is important for organisations to clearly articulate the business case for diversity and to set reasonable goals for the organisation.”

According to Giam, “For Deloitte, this did not mean setting just goals in the form of fixed targets, such as achieving 20% female partners, but rather setting goals around the pursuit of our ‘unfair share of female talent’. We thought that this would be defined as 20% of our partners to be female when we and our competitors only had 5% or 6% female partners. This allowed us to see that if we got to 20% and the others didn’t, then we would have gotten our unfair share of female talent. This was a strategic goal that received a lot of support and buy-in from all parts of the firm.”

Is it about changing the rules or about knowing the rules and how to play by them?

“I think it is a little bit of both. Whenever I worked with the males, I have worked towards changing the rules. However, whenever I worked with females it has been about how you play within the constraints of the rules.” Giam states that “Deloitte’s women’s initiative has not spent a lot of time discussing how the rules should be changed. Some small things have been re-assessed but the key was to work with the partners and, in a very subtle way, show them why having gender diversity would benefit the firm and would be in their best interest.” Giam emphasises that he never forced, but rather ensured that partners came to realise themselves, that there was an advantage to be gained from gender diversity.

Looking ahead: Focus for the next two years

Giam’s focus continues to be increasing the progression of females into senior leadership ranks.  “If I look at the top 70 leaders of the firm, I don’t think we are seeing a fair representation of females yet. I think there is enough good talent coming through the organisation now, that if we continue to work with them well, we will see more females progress through to the very senior ranks. It would be very disappointing if we don’t start seeing females in the executive ranks soon.”

In order to fill the internal partner pipeline with strong candidates, Giam has ensured that females are overrepresented on a number of different training programs across the firm.  With this investment in female leaders he is hoping to see a medium term sustainable growth in female leaders. Giam clarifies, “It’s always easy to get numbers in the short term. However, it is about sustainability of the leadership pipeline and making sure that people succeed. This is exactly the same training we provide for males who have leadership potential.”

Final words

Giam concludes, “If Australia is going to ride the growth wave coming out of Asia, there will be an even bigger demand for top talent. Without organisations getting a better understanding of gender diversity, we are just not going to have the right workforce and skills in place to make the most of the opportunities the next decade is going to offer us. This is one of the key reasons why I am so involved with this on a national level.”

“Reflecting on Deloitte’s ten year journey with gender diversity, we’ve had some great achievements but also made some mistakes along the way. Companies should feel free to talk to us. Between our Diversity Team in Human Capital Consulting and our HR team we have a lot of experience that we can share.”

* Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency (now known as the Workplace Gender Equality Agency WGEA)


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