Women's Agenda

By Catherine Fox

There were so many men in and around the G20 in Brisbane over the weekend that it was a particularly startling contrast to join a discussion on women's leadership on Monday. The latter was attended by about 200 women and just a few men following the international talk fest.

There was optimism about the news that a 25% decrease in the workforce gender gap by 2025 was included in the G20 communique for the first time, and hope this would finally signal some real action.

But frustration about how to achieve the changes was bubbling through several sessions at yesterday's International Dialogue on Women in Leadership, hosted by Sydney University's United States Studies Centre and Griffith University.

As former Governor General Quentin Bryce pointed out, it's time to talk about how this will be delivered. If we don't do something, she reminded the audience, the current estimate is Australia will take until 2095 to reach gender equality.

There's a current gap of about 13% between male and female workforce participation in Australia, so the G20 goal means an increase of just over 3% in women's employment rate here.

Concerns were raised by several speakers about the accountability for reaching the '25 by 25' goal and how progress would be measured. Some were less pessimistic. The move was putting women's issues on the world's agenda according to OECD president Dr Jose Angel Gurris.

And for Sandra Polaski, deputy director-general at the International Labour Organization, formalising the goal was very significant.

"It's a real achievement and will be tracked and measured — it will be a commitment that can move the needle."

Even without an ability to enforce the target the inclusion in the communique holds leaders to some account to work towards the goal, she said.

Just how to get that needle moving though is a tricky issue, with some advocates for legislated measures such as quotas and others deeply opposed.

Quotas and other legislation were mechanisms that produced change in many countries in both the political and business sphere such as in dismantling apartheid in South Africa, Oxfam CEO Winnie Byanyima pointed out. And opponents of quotas, she suggested, need to show us what are the other ways that deliver change if you don't use them?

We should start thinking about quotas in the same way we think about scholarships, which provide help to those who have less access to opportunity, Hana Satriyo, director for gender and women's participation at the Asia Foundation told the audience.

While the government recognises that things have to change and there are not enough women in leadership, Senator Michaelia Cash said targets were the preferred option and quotas were not on the agenda for Australia under the LNP.

Although women's leadership was the focus of the event, several speakers highlighted the need to use better gender balance at the decision making table to deliver change for all women, along with pressure to modify social norms around caring.

It's a hot topic, as US author and international affairs expert Anne-Marie Slaughter knows. Nothing could have prepared her for the tsunami of reaction to the article "Why women still can't have it all" which she wrote in 2012 for The Atlantic, she told the forum.

"My whole frame has changed pretty dramatically," she said. "I don't think women on their own will be able to make it unless we make broader social changes and involve men."

At the many talks she has given since the article was published, Slaughter says she is aware that for every woman in the room about four others who are not there.

"They haven't made it and we need to concentrate on them and not the ones who have."

Advanced economies don't value the work women have traditionally done, and we were stuck with the statistics on women's participation and leadership that we've had since the 1990s.

"We have a gender revolution that says we should all be men and it's not going to work," she said.

No male CEOs are also the primary caregivers for their family, and every single one has a caregiver at home, she added. "Unless we learn to value that role and say that work is just as important as the work that brings in money we will not get the change we need."

And she agreed this will also involve workplace change so that senior roles don't prevent parents from actually seeing their families because of pressure and long hours. You also need to think about careers less as ladders and more as interval training with different times when you either work hard at your job or your caring, Slaughter said.

Australia's most senior female public servant, secretary of the Department of Finance, Jane Halton, said her ability to build an executive team which is 80% women was about showing it could be done and looking at how we do work.

Her opinion on quotas waxes and wanes she said: "We can talk about quotas but unless we talk about care and jobs — we need to have a dialogue about how we work to change that."

A panel of top women executives and directors were cautiously optimistic that metrics and reporting were helping to shift behaviour and workplace gender balance.

Women need to be in line as well as support roles, said Coca-Cola Amatil managing director Alison Watkins.

"If you have women run those businesses they can drive the culture down through the business. You are looking for a mix rather than just women in support roles."

But the issue of gender balance is still not registering for analysts, Watkins said. On a recent roadshow she had one question which was about a non-financial area.

"I'd love to have investors challenging us on it more," she said.

Director and Sydney University Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson said the world is changing and gender is a top agenda item for boards and management.

Most speakers agreed there were far more interventions and options available to organisations now for making progress — from objective job evaluations, to blind selection processes and job sharing.

Just like when discussing unemployment or inflation, bringing rigorous research to the table is crucial for this discussion said Professor Iris Bohnet who has co-authored a new study released at the event by the US Studies Centre and Harvard University.

The findings reveal that having equal numbers of men and women in a candidate pool significantly helps to overcome selection bias against women.

"There's something magic about the even split," she said.

But no matter how much data or the levers and policies available, many of the political and business panellists agreed, it often comes down to who is in charge.

This article was originally published at Women's Agenda