In case you haven’t noticed, we’re living in a female economy. Women are doing the majority of the household shopping. Women are expected to control $28 trillion in consumer spending this year. Women are a growth market twice the size of India and China combined.
The above sounds strange when you consider some of the reasons why we still ‘celebrate’ International Women’s Day in business, especially while speaking out about the lack of female representation in key business decision making positions, as well as the gender pay gap which is currently at its biggest in recorded history, 18.6%.
And so on International Women’s Day, we not only seek to raise awareness and funds for the plight of girls and women overseas, but also to spend some time reminding ourselves of the systemic cultural and structural issues that still stand in the way of women’s workforce participation locally here.
But it shouldn’t be a once yearly reminder. Every day is International Women’s Day. Every day big business benefits from the economic power and talent of women – March 8 just happens to be the day we celebrate it.
On Friday at a brunch hosted by NAB in Sydney, non-executive director Jillian Segal AM made such a point while recalling her personal career story, especially after becoming one of the first female partners of a large law firm in the 1980s.
A few months after being appointed, she had to explain to the HR department she was pregnant — only to discover the firm had no policy for such a situation. “You’re a lawyer, they told me, why don’t you go and write one?”
So Segal did, and when the men continued to smoke in front of her during partnership meetings, she kindly asked them to stop. And when she returned from maternity leave, she had another surprise: a request to work part time, the first partner ever to do so.
It was a process of education and uncomfortable change for many of the partners in the firm, but change that happened nonetheless and has consequently helped see more talented women contribute to the legal profession over the years. Segal believes flexible work is much closer to becoming the ‘norm’ in 2015, although there’s still much work to do.
Segal also recounted her experience on numerous boards – some where she’s been the first and only woman, others where she’s been one of two or three women. She believes all-female discussions are fundamentally different to all-male discussions and that the best results come from a mix of both genders.
“Women say it as they see it. They are straight forward,” she said. “It’s not a question of ‘oh that person’s a mate, or that’s person joins me on the golf corse’… Women, I think, are more focused on the facts, compliance and performance metrics.
“That’s what I think women bring to a board table: a different energy, a different dynamic, an openness to different ideas … That approach and energy doesn’t necessarily cause the better results, but it creates a better culture to encourage better results.”
She added women are the greatest opportunity any country has: “As women are employed more generally in the workforce, there is a huge uplift in productivity.
But if there are so many global benefits to women’s participation, why are we not seeing more women represented in senior leadership and board positions? Why is women’s workforce participation still not on par with the rate that men are participating?
NAB executive general manager Angela Mentis believes there are many reasons but one that particularly stands out – and it’s similar to why Segal had to ‘educate’ all those partners on the fact she would be taking maternity leave and working flexibly almost three decades ago.
“It’s in the way society views the nature of work and the role of caregivers,” she told the NAB brunch. “That is that there is one person playing the role of carer, and one the role of bringing an income into the family. The fact remains we do have a societal bias towards seeing women in the role of primary caregiver.”
Mentis said flexible work must become the norm – so much so that we no longer think about it as ‘flexible working’ but rather just working. The willingness and the technology is available to make this happen – it has been for some time now – what’s needed is the serious cultural change.
For big business, every day is International Women’s Day and as Segal noted: “Everybody has a responsibility to push the agenda in whatever way they can.”