Women's Agenda

By Georgina Dent

Just after a group of 20 of the world's most powerful people met to strategise on global economic growth, a group of powerful women gathered to discuss women in leadership.

The former governor-general Quentin Bryce, American foreign policy expert Anne-Marie Slaughter, Senator Michaelia Cash, Sydney University vice-chancellor Belinda Hutchinson, Oxfam's CEO Winnie Byanyima, the OECD president Dr Jose Angel Gurris and CCA managing director Alison Watkins were among those who joined forces for the International Dialogue on Women in Leadership, hosted by Sydney University's United States Studies Centre and Griffith University.

It was a G20-related event that began at the conclusion of the main event, and if that's not an apt metaphor for the regard in which, as a society, we continue to treat the role of women, I'm not sure what is.

The Twitter stream from the event was music to the ears of anyone with a vested interest in progressing women in leadership. Pearls of wisdom, astute observations and potential solutions were being exchanged in and between the impressive participants. From all accounts, those present were characteristically sharp, engaged and well-informed. Even a cursory glance at the program confirms you wouldn't expect anything else from this group.

But as I absorbed their contributions, even from afar, I couldn't help from returning to the same point. It was the wrong ears listening and the wrong eyes watching. The group that really needed to be there had just left the building.

The fact that group had just determined that boosting women's workforce participation was a key priority, seemed to underscore the futility of their absence. Had each of the G20 members despatched their key advisers to attend this important and constructive dialogue? I sincerely hope so because if they were looking for a practical starting point to plot a path to narrow the gender gap that persists in each of their economies, they'd be hard pressed to find a better place to be than Brisbane yesterday and today.

The joint CEO of Pottinger and IWDL attendee, Cassandra Kelly agrees if real change is to be achieved the issues pertaining to women's participation in the economy needs to be incorporated in the main program.

"If we are saying that women's workforce participation is one of — if not the most — significant levers we have to pull to improve global prosperity for men and women around the globe then I sincerely hope that the Turkish presidency of 2015 will make gender equality a key pillar of their focus," Kelly told Women's Agenda.

At the opening event Senator Michaelia Cash drew criticism from the audience when she argued that quotas would not achieve cultural change. Virginia Haussenger noted the room's discontent with Cash's comment about quotas and Kelly said the frustration in the room was palpable.

"The women in the room were impatient and they want change," Kelly told Women's Agenda. "There was a real sense of wanting action not talk."

Hutchinson is adamant Australia can do a lot better for women.

"It's an opportunity to come up with some proactive and positive next steps in terms of how we get more women into senior leadership roles," Hutchinson told Women's Agenda.

"We have amazingly strong educational outcomes for women in Australia but in the workforce — and in particular in the middle executive ranks — women run out of steam. At a policy level but also in business we need leadership to be saying 'culturally this isn't a good outcome for us an economy or as a society'."

Hutchinson agrees with Senator Cash that quotas are not the answer to solving the workplace gap between men and women.

"I have never been a quota fan myself but I recognise it's a topic that is rich in debate. I think aspirational targets are absolutely what we should be setting because what gets measured gets done," she says. "There is no silver bullet because if there was we'd have fired it already."

The critical question in Hutchinson's view is what holistic programs and policies can we implement to change our culture and society to accept women in the workplace? If only more of the G20 leaders had stuck around a day longer they would have walked away with some good ideas.

This article was originally published at Women's Agenda