Senator Michaelia Cash can talk the talk about gender equality. What’s missing is the action from the Abbott Government she represents — including the example it’s setting within its own ministry. What’s also missing is the seemingly harmless admission that she is indeed a feminist and that’s ok to label herself that way. Indeed, any mention of the ‘f’ word at all would be something noteworthy from the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women.
Senator Cash has previously stated that she’s never really associated with the feminist movement. When asked if she was a feminist at a National Press Club event earlier this year, she said she believes in women and she believes in men, but would not use the label to describe herself.
The Senator addressed the launch of the second search for a female MBA scholarship in Sydney yesterday, a joint initiative of UN Women and the University of Sydney Business School. It was an event to celebrate the first winner, Woodside Energy’s Nancy Nguyen, the success of the program in encouraging more female MBA enrolments (currently at 40+% from 18% in the intake prior to the scholarship being announced), and to spread the word about nominating women for the next scholarship on offer.
Cash was clearly moved by the scholarship recipient’s success. She spoke of Nguyen’s confidence to leave her well established profession as a physiotherapist to meet with Woodside and enter a completely different industry. “She made that incredible leap not to just change career paths but to go and have a meeting with a drilling expert, in a male dominated industry, and a whole new world opened up,” the Senator said.
“That’s what confidence and embracing opportunities that come before you can actually do. This is what you can achieve if you are prepared to act and embrace change and embrace opportunities that come your way.”
Women’s confidence, and the need to have more of it and make the most of opportunities, was the major theme of Cash’s speech.
She spoke of reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In and being reassured to learn that even the COO of Facebook experiences moments of self doubt.
“There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud and not sure if I should be where I am,” said Cash. “Sometimes, it’s refreshing to hear that from other women because it says to you, ‘thank goodness I’m not the only one!’ But it also says that women regardless of the positions they have attained in life, still underestimate the skillsets they have.”
Cash shared her own major moment of hesitation in the face of an opportunity, when she had thirty seconds back in 2006 to decide whether of not to put her name down for a Western Australia senate spot. “I can assure you that in that 30 seconds, every bit of self doubt I ever had — and let me tell you losing a pre-selection is not something that you’d like to do — every bit of self doubt ran through my mind and I still, to this day, don’t know why I said yes before I put the phone down … If I had said no, I would not be here today.”
Confidence is indeed a major impediment for many women. But it’s not a challenge for all women, nor is the so-called confidence gap something that we can only attribute to women (I know plenty of men who lack confidence too). Sure, we’ve heard anecdotally that women will not put their hand up for opportunities at the same rate as men, but that can’t entirely be attributed to self-doubt. Women may talk themselves out of such opportunities due to all the other cultural and structural impediments they know, or perceive, may exist with such positions. They often have more variables than men to weigh up when considering such opportunities. Confidence will help. But so will other factors: such as having a supportive partner, seeing position descriptions that actually appear interested in attracting women, seeing visible female leaders, as well as having mentors and sponsors.
When it comes to gender equality, supporting initiatives that benefit the confidence levels of women will help. But it alone is not enough to get us to where we need to be. And we can’t leave it to women to sort themselves out.
Cash spoke of some of the major marker points of gender inequality in Australia, including the 17.1% gender pay gap and the number of highly educated women who’re not in the workforce. “That for every one of us, but quite particularly for the government, should be tantamount to sabotaging the government,” she said.
“We need to do more to ensure those women do go into the workforce and are given the opportunity to participate in society and are able to make the choices they want to make, as opposed to the choices they have to make because of the barriers that are still front in them,” Cash said.
So what is the Government doing? Aside from, of course, supporting initiatives like the UN Women’s MBA scholarship program (as Cash said the Government did) and investing in a mentoring program for women in the mining and resources industry, which Cash also highlighted the Government is doing?
“We can’t legislate cultural change. If we try to legislate cultural change we’ll send this country backwards,” Cash said. “Cultural change will only happen when it is embraced by corporates, when it is embraced by the community, when it is embraced by the private sector.”
Cultural change, more than anything, also requires leadership. The Government, it seems, would be in the best possible position to offer such leadership. Policies like paid parental leave go some way in assisting women through some of the structural barriers that exist, but the cultural barriers in the way require a major shift in mindset. One that’s not just talking of change, but being the change. Perhaps even one that openly associates with feminism.