• Former David Jones CEO Paul Zahra (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Former David Jones CEO Paul Zahra was, for many years, the only openly gay CEO of a top 200 ASX company. We spoke to him about his new role promoting diversity in Australian business.
Drew Sheldrick

14 Jan 2016 - 12:36 PM  UPDATED 14 Jan 2016 - 12:36 PM

Paul Zahra became the poster boy of gay men in big business as the only CEO of a top 200 ASX company to be open about his sexuality. It would be a few years after he took the top job at department store David Jones before Qantas CEO Alan Joyce began speaking openly about being gay, and a real conversation began about what it would take for LGBTI people to fill more leadership positions in corporate Australia.

Zahra left David Jones in 2014 and joined professional services firm PwC as director of its Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board. Diversity and inclusion are some of the "strategic imperatives" set out by PwC Australia CEO Luke Sayers. They're common buzzwords in major companies these days, but leave many scratching their heads as to what they really mean in practice.

"Alongside my fellow directors I oversee each functions plan to ensure they achieve their diversity targets," Zahra explained.

"I also have the responsibility of personally advising the CEO on diversity and inclusion matters."

Zahra will appear "in conversation" next week as part of Midsumma in Melbourne, the city's annual queer arts festival. He'll be discussing his personal experiences in what he describes as the "straight man’s world" of business.

"A culture of active LGBTI inclusiveness and visibility is on the rise among major corporate employers in Australia, but we still have a long way to go," he said.

"The current focus for most corporations is, rightly, on gender equality. As we improve the status of women in boardrooms, the time will ultimately come for LGBTI people."

Zahra says the LGBTI community is a special dimension of diversity and inclusion because it's a group that has a social taboo associated with it.

"I believe any business that has a strong LGBTI representation and support has passed the ultimate litmus test for an inclusive culture," he said.

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There's plenty of debate as to whether major corporations want to genuinely engage with LGBTI people by establishing diversity boards and inclusion policies, or whether they're simply indifferent and see it as part of a low-risk PR exercise. If it makes it easier for LGBTI people to access previously unreachable rungs on the corporate ladder, some will argue it doesn't matter either way.

Zahra is one who looks at the diversity boom less sceptically.

"Like all efforts to increase workplace diversity, LGBTI workplace inclusion is not an issue for the LGBTI community alone to solve. It's an issue for all of us to solve together," he said.

"I do think that those companies that set diversity targets are truly progressive, particularly if they have set specific LGBTI targets.

"I'd like to think that businesses are doing this for the right reasons. It's hard to achieve something and, importantly, to sustain it unless you believe in what you are doing."

"Same-sex marriage is imperative for equality and is good for business."

At David Jones, Zahra led the charge among Australian business leaders in getting the country's corporate sector engaged in the marriage equality debate. He said he's proud of the fact that he was one of the first CEO signatories to support marriage equality.

"I do think business has a responsibility to lead change for the better. Same-sex marriage is imperative for equality and is good for business," he said.

"It takes great courage as an individual to stand up for what you believe in. I think it takes even more courage for corporations to stand up on social issues... it can be a political minefield.

"I'm also proud of PwC and the almost 700 other businesses that have since come out in public support of marriage equality."

Zahra said he and his partner plan to marry when same-sex marriage is legalised in Australia.

"I have been with my partner, Duncan, for 25 years. I believe it's the greatest achievement in my life," he said.

"It frustrates me that this debate continues when most first world countries have made marriage equality happen."

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