I clearly remember the first time I heard Helen Conway speak. It was at a legal conference in Melbourne several years ago now and she was talking about her own career and the issue of women in law. She struck me as smart and funny, a combination I particularly enjoy, and I immediately wanted to interview her.
In the years that have passed between then and now I have had the terrific fortune to interview the head of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency several times. The Minister for Employment Senator Eric Abetz has just announced Conway’s resignation to take effect in March 2015.
“Ms Conway has led the Agency with skill, energy and diligence – something that has earned her respect in all quarters,” Eric Abetz said. “The Australian Government greatly appreciates her service. I wish her all the best for the future.”
The Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women Senator Michaelia Cash paid tribute to Conway.
“Gender equality in the workplace – in addition to its inherent social value – is incredibly important and the Australian Government is determined to continue its work in this vital area,” she said. “Ms Conway’s advice has been of great value to, and genuinely appreciated by the Government as we work to close the gender pay gap.”
Conway’s resignation marks the end of a five year term in which she has campaigned tirelessly to promote gender equality.
“The agency has reached a significant milestone. We have restructured, we have brought in some significant expertise to complement the existing expertise and we’ve stabilised the agency financially,” Conway told Women’s Agenda.
Next week the agency will formally launch the results from the new reporting framework.
“We are about to launch this new reporting framework which will yield world-leading data,” Conway says. “Back in February the government had some doubt about whether gender reporting would stay but they’ve moved. It’s here to stay. It’s been a very transparent consultation process and the issue has got momentum.”
Conway will stay on until March next year by which point she says it will be an appropriate time for someone new to take over.
She says the fact boosting women’s participation made the G20 communique bodes very well for women and the agency.
“It is very encouraging to see the G20 appreciate that increasing female workforce participation is an important thing to do,” Conway told Women’s Agenda. “The first point of activity to boost women’s participation in the workforce is to understand the current state and we have that data. The G20 commitment underscores the importance of an agency like this which is a dedicated resource to help achieve that objective.”
In her time at the agency Conway has been responsible for creating standardised gender reporting data covering over 11,000 employers and four million employees. She has used this data to ensure organisations remain focused on the gender composition of their workforces and work towards reducing any gaps that exist between men and women.
Conway’s championing of women began well before she took a role with WGEA. It has been a constant focus through her corporate career spanning 30 years. Following 10 years in private practice as a lawyer, including seven years as a partner, she joined the corporate sector where she held various executive positions in companies covering the insurance, transport, downstream oil, retailing and construction industries.
In 1992 she was the recipient of the first scholarship awarded by Chief Executive Women which enabled her to undertake studies at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management and in 2005 was awarded the Australian Corporate Lawyers Association Corporate Lawyer of the Year.
When she decided to take on a government position heading WGEA (then known as the Equal Opportunities for Women in the Workforce Agency) some of her male executive colleagues were shocked.
They couldn’t believe she’d consider taking a pay cut and join the public service. In her mind it crystallised the reason it was so important to take up the job. If she took up a board seat, at best she might have changed the workplace culture in one company but she wanted to do more than that. She wanted to change the workplace culture more broadly and she’s worked assiduously towards that goal ever since.
To be honest, I credit Conway with planting the seeds of my personal interest in gender equality at work. Conversations with Conway, and the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, proved transformative in my understanding of the role women occupy in our society, and how starkly it contrasts with the role they can and should occupy.
March 2015 looks to be a big month for indefatigable female leaders. Conway will join Gail Kelly who is stepping away from the helm of Westpac at the same time. I wonder what they’ll do next?