The reality of the role of women in business

Do we need more women in business? Clearly, yes. The evidence shows a more balanced gender and diversity mix better represents communities and consumers and helps not just business outcomes but governance.

But there is a deeper issue. Even where the mix is very healthy – and if I look at the small- and medium-enterprise market we have a very healthy gender mix – the perception remains that business is run by men. That’s not the reality but it demonstrates we have more work to do in changing how that reality is perceived and utilised.

" Do we need more women in business or do we need to adjust our lens so that we re-focus to see the real picture?"
Tania Motton, General Manager Australian Business Banking at ANZ

If you looked in any SME portfolio or opened up any customer file my experience says in the 'metro' business you would find at least 70 per cent of the time two names - one male and one female. In regional Australia that would be even higher at 85 per cent. Why then is the perception so different? 

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Source: Twitter

It’s because everyone thinks of business owners being men, rather than a true partnership, often husband and wife. Often that’s because the visible part of the business – maybe it’s a mechanic or a landscape gardener or a farm – is done by the male.

Yet there is a lot more to a successful business than the actual product or service. There is, for want of a better description, the back office where strategy, finance, accounting and recruitment are undertaken.


When you look at a painting for the first time, do you see everything at first? What is the first impression it makes on you? What are you drawn to? Is it the largest object, the boldest colour or do you study the full picture?

As head of Australian Business Banking at ANZ, I find first impressions are very important. Most weeks, I host or attend customer networking functions where prior to revealing my role, I get far less engagement from men.  

This 'perception' theory played out when I attended a customer trip with a senior male colleague deep in the heart of remote regional Australia. 

Partway through the second day my colleague pulled me aside to good-naturedly point out I was missing important conversations as I was helping with refreshments and food preparation while the husband was discussing important business strategy with my colleague.

What I had to point out was: 

  • We were in their home, so it’s respectful and good manners to help. And, more importantly:
  • I was getting more honest feedback from his wife (also our client) on what was really happening, what she was concerned about and what their plans were to mitigate what was coming up.

Very rarely is there one person involved in a business. Everyone plays a role, whether that is marketing (in this instance the husband) or COO /CFO (the wife).

Take the example of one business I deal with, an engineering firm. The engineer is indeed the male but the business has expanded, successfully entered new markets, taken on extra staff, raised capital, primarily because of the female.

She is the one who has taken the time to understand what the business needs to do as a business to grow and that includes marketing and even target business sectors.

The important question is: do we understand the role each play in businesses of this type? And by not seeing past the ‘bold, shiny object’ do bankers miss important cues for understanding and influencing decision makers?


This is not some new-age phenomenon where we only now have to change our thinking.  I think women are simply less prepared to be silent any more about being ignored.

I was recently at a function talking with a typical group including colleagues and some customers. The husband from a business, very engagingly, was talking about what they had been doing. But later it was the wife who came over to discuss the difficulty they were having hiring and how they planned to manage their cashflow as they grew  – the kinds of questions fundamental to success. She was in effect the head of strategy.

Correctly understanding our customers is how businesses and leaders can differentiate themselves in the market.  We have to keep challenging our mindset if we are experienced; or to not fall into the same traps if we are young.

Here are five steps that can be taken to ensure you see the whole picture of a business.

  1. Don't assume who the main decision maker in a business partnership is. Ask open questions about who is in the business and what everyone's role is - including other family members. Ignoring the next generation is equally as troublesome!
  2. Take the time to build personal connections, establish what is important around family and backgrounds.
  3. Understand how the business owners want to engage. Cocktail functions and football matches are not everyone's cup of tea.
  4. Differentiate yourself by addressing questions to different members of the business, not just one individual.
  5. Connect challenges/opportunities to your own business - there will always be common ground, like retaining talent or sales conversion.

The fascinating part is the simplicity of the message. Ignoring someone is a sure fire way to lose your seat at the table. Gender should be irrelevant but somehow it has been acceptable to ignore women in the past! 

Let’s not forget, advocacy is crucial to everyone's success and women share their experiences and relationships. Do you want to be the favourable experience they remember, or the one they want to forget?

Tania Motton is General Manager, Business Business Banking Australia at ANZ

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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