Women's Agenda and The Australian

By Sam Mostyn

This week, in committing to reduce unemployment, raise participation and create quality jobs globally, G20 leaders agreed to focus on significantly reducing the gap in participation between men and women by 25% by 2025. Australia's genuine engagement with this commitment could provide us with the much-needed impetus to embrace a wave of cultural change across our workplaces. And we should, because it will not only grow the participation and advancement of women but it will answer the needs of a rapidly changing working population, while improving productivity and supporting growth.

Australia faces a complex set of workplace challenges — an ageing population with greater need for elder care, competing aspirations of the baby boomer and millenial generations, significant global competition for talent, the enabling and disruptive impacts of technology, recognition of diversity in all it forms, and the reframing of family care.

If we are to succeed in keeping pace with these changes, Australia must engage in a mature discussion about the central role of flexible work, flexible workplaces and a re-imagining of the qualities of leadership and management.

Earlier this week in Brisbane, the US Studies Centre and Griffith University hosted an International Dialogue on Women in Leadership to find solutions to the challenges raised at the G20. From the most senior corporate women, to leading women in the federal bureaucracy, NGOs, academia, and fast growing start-ups, the message was consistent. Addressing gender equality, full workforce participation and leadership by women will bring enduring positive change to our societies and assist in solving many of the other challenges we face.

Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter of The New America Foundation argued that the relationship between men and women within families has changed forever, and that this is profoundly changing notions of careers, work and caring responsibilities. One of her favourite lines was that we should no longer think of careers as ladders, but rather, 'interval training' where work, family, and education get workouts at different times over the course of a life. It's a sentiment also reflected in the recent comments by departing Westpac CEO, Gail Kelly.

Despite compelling data showing the significant potential economic uplift generated by the full workforce participation of women, Australia has felt stuck in the debate about women's equal participation in the workforce, and in leadership roles in particular, for many years. Most recently, concerted effort to raise the presence of women on public company boards, and in senior management teams, has been encouraging, although progress remains slow.

Despite reporting requirements, AICD women mentoring programs, and good intentions all round, women still only represent 18% of the directors of ASX 200 companies, have low representation in senior management teams, and only represent 3% of CEOs. The emergence of the Male Champions of Change has been an encouraging development, with a growing appreciation by senior men of their vital roles in addressing this issue, and that benefits accrue to both men and women in the workforce when this change is embraced.

It was leading businessman Kevin McCann who closed the International Dialogue on Women's Leadership with very supporting comments about the need for a steep change in growing numbers of women in leadership through the innovative removal of cultural barriers, and a strong call for us all to keep governments accountable for the provision of affordable and accessible childcare as a prime enabler of change.

And it is pleasing to look at the leadership on show at the 76 Australian organisations awarded the inaugural WGEA Employer of Choice for Gender Equality citation. Many of the CEOs of these organisations reveal that there is huge economic value created in taking innovative, strategic and systemic approaches to achieving gender diverse workforces, underpinned by flexibility. WGEA itself reported that applications for the citation highlight a 'growing recognition of the need to integrate men into diversity initiatives with a focus on promoting acceptance around men taking parental leave and working flexibly.'

Diversity Council of Australia (DCA) research on flexibility in 2012 revealed that flexible working and careers are simply not mainstreamed in Australia. The 'Get Flexible' report concluded that mainstreaming flexibility is a business imperative offering improved outcomes on multiple levels — from productivity lifts, to attraction of talent, to creating more successful pathways to gender equality. And this is not a change sought only by women.

DCA's 'Men Get Flexible' research found that a significant and growing number of men desire greater access to flexible work, but tend to 'tinker' with it as it is not generally seen as consistent with ambition, and that formal flexibility can still be seen as more aligned to women's priorities.

In thinking about a future of work which is productive — and embraces gender equity, millenials' needs and expectations, rapidly changing caring responsibilities, and technology impacts — I can only think that our focus must shift to designing jobs, workflows and careers that fully encompass flexible working. Organisational culture and design must support both men and women's needs for flexibility.

Perhaps the time has come to be truly bold. In committing to real work flexibility, is it time to change the language and remove all gender nuances? Is it time to review wage setting and pay scales to remove differentiation between full and part time workers? And not talk about full or part time work? Could we design performance evaluation and development criteria that are gender neutral and do not disadvantage those working flexibly? Could we describe every role as flexible? Could our workplaces no longer talk about maternity or parental leave, but family carer leave instead?

It would require a form of authentic leadership and management that embraces collaboration and trust in the workplace, values diversity, measures outcomes rather than inputs, and embraces complexity and innovation. Such leadership would necessarily be more gender balanced, but isn't that what the future demands?

This article was originally published at Women's Agenda and The Australian