Women have ambition. It’s policymakers and employers that lack it

Women have ambition. It’s policymakers and employers that lack it

Let’s get something out of the way straight up: Women are not born with less ambition and confidence than men. Just like we are not born with less merit.

But women’s confidence can certainly take a hit on the way to reaching ambitious goals: through gender discrimination, through violence and harassment, and especially through trying to navigate a system of work that was designed in another century.

There have been a LOT of announcements regarding workplace gender equality this week, as well as research releases on women, new targets set, and new policy initiatives outlined — all in the lead up to International Women’s Day (today).

These announcements articulate a desire for change but not always a desire to set big, audacious goals that can really set a new agenda for women in 2019 and beyond.

As such, the many announcements this week have left me with more questions than answers, some of which I have detailed below. As I hit the 2000 word mark this morning, I decided to leave some of the many, many other questions I have for another day. On Women’s Agenda, we publish this type of content every day.

Firstly, some context:

Recently, we released our 2019 Women’s Ambitions Report, sharing some of the key things women are looking to achieve in the next two years, following our survey of 1800 women.

What we found was that there is absolutely no shortage of ambition among women – with a desire for more pay and promotions high on the agenda.

And while 51 per cent of respondents said that ‘confidence in my abilities’ might get in the way of their goals, I was more interested in the almost half who declared this would not be an issue.

As for those lacking some confidence, there was a very good case to be made for the fact that a lack of support may be contributing to diminished confidence levels.

That lack of support comes in many forms: including outright gender, age and cultural discrimination, a lack of support at home, a lack of support from employers and a lack of true support to encourage women to actually accelerate their careers while working part time and flexibly.

During a panel discussion yesterday to mark IWD, I was asked how we can better “motivate” women into leadership and to stay in the workforce.

It’s absolutely not about motivating women because a lack of motivation isn’t the issue. Leadership and confidence training, mentoring, a few policy tweaks here, aren’t enough.

This is about motivating everyone to support a more equal – and therefore better – world.

Below are the questions I have:

Why wait on a date to elevate and spotlight women?

Women are everywhere today: in the papers, on panels at events, in various ‘top ten’ lists showing the most powerful among us.

As the saying goes, “you can’t be what you can’t see”, and throwing the spotlight on women enables all of us to see what women are achieving and doing in their work (although it can also make many of us feel inadequate).

But why do we need to mark International Women’s Day in our calendars before we finally see the opinion and sports sections of major newspapers dominated by women?

Why do big employers push their PR companies to inundate the inboxes of editors and journalists with pitches about their female talent at this time of year, instead of putting such women forward for events and media all year round, even when they’re not the CEO?

Why is it in March that we finally see women profiled and celebrated for their careers and leadership, rather than their appearance and social media followers?

Domestic violence prevention funding or replacement funding?

Politicians talk a big game on eliminating domestic violence. Scott Morrison looks forward to the day that a baby girl being born won’t experience violence in her lifetime.

But the $328 million of Federal funding offered this week isn’t enough to make that happen, especially given a chunk of that simply replaces funding that’s been cut in previous years.

Already, 11 women have been killed as a result of violence in Australia in 2019, including Sydney dentist, Dr Preethi Reddy just this week.

When I see such figures on DV prevention funding, I’m reminded of two things: the first being the $250 million over four years allocated in the 2018/19 budget for the controversial school chaplaincy program. Yep, it’s not hard to find plenty of cash for school chaplains. The second thing is a speech from Dr Richard Denniss from a couple of years back detailing how Australia absolutely can afford to spend significantly more on DV prevention funding.

Why offer part time work if part time employees are only part valued?

Employers wax lyrical about the part time and flexible work they have on offer, and in some cases how their leaders are leaving the office early for soccer practice, or to collect the kids from school one morning a week. I heard such examples used again this week.

But do people really buy into the idea that a CEO or senior leader is working flexibly because they pick up the kids one afternoon a week from school? Calling that flexibility is insulting.

We found 71 per cent of women who have recently taken a career break for child caring purposes have felt discriminated against due to their need to work part time or flexibility. They reported feeling undervalued, overworked and like their careers were on hold due to the fact they couldn’t work a full time week. Some also reported sniggering comments from colleagues questioning why they couldn’t ‘leave early’ or not come in certain days (seemingly forgetting that the part time employee is also taking a part time salary).

Part time opportunities are not enough. We need to ensure that careers can actually excel while working part time. We need to completely overhaul our thinking about the part time workforce to prove to all staff that part time does not mean ‘part valued’.

And we need leaders to really demonstrate what working part time or flexibly actually means — even if it’s for a six months stint, to prove what can be done.

And of course, we need to shift the mindset that part time work is for working mothers. How about setting targets for men to work part time in your organisation? How about pushing it as an option for those who don’t have kids?

Why do we still have to justify the ‘business case’ for gender diversity?

One thing I’ve heard coming up again and again this week are questions on the ‘business case’ for gender diversity.

It’s a popular topic to put on the agenda at events and during media interviews. First outline the “business case” and then we can start talking about what needs to be done. And so figures get shared from Harvard Business Review papers as well as major studies by PwC and Bain & Co and other firms to release white papers on the issue.

The business case is obvious. Women don’t need to justify they have merit and a deserving place at the decision-making table — it’s a given, as long as you believe that merit and talent is distributed evenly between men and women.

Just imagine where the world would be at in 2019 if women had been given equal opportunities for the past couple of centuries?

We’re ‘encouraging’ girls. So why are the marks going backwards? 

We’ve been talking about encouraging more girls into studying maths for years now, but this is not translating at the higher levels of the subject, with new data from the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) today finding just 6.9 per cent of Year 12 girls took Higher (advanced) maths in 2017 compared to 12.2 per cent of boys.

It’s the continuation of a 20-year decline.

Is this the fault of girls? No. Clearly something else is occurring in the system to make higher levels of maths continue to seem like a more attractive option for boys.

The good news is there is an increase in girls studying maths at the intermediate level. But it’s higher levels of maths that lead to careers in mathematics and data science and particularly, in artificial intelligence (see below).

The gender gap in Artificial Intelligence. Are we headed for a widening of the gender gap as a result?

We discussed the lack of women in AI at a couple of roundtable events with Hall & Wilcox last week (with a piece on the issue to be published shortly)

It struck me that this was the first time I’d been in a professional environment having this discussion, and I’ve hardly heard it mentioned in other IWD discussions this week.

The World Economic Forum has listed the lack of women working in AI related fields as a serious threat to gender equality efforts. As AI becomes an increasingly intertwined part of our work and life, it’s problematic women are seriously underrepresented in this field.

If the teams building AI lack diversity, they may well build gender bias and other biases into the algorithms created.

It’s also problematic when you consider how fast this industry is changing and also the fact we need to have serious conversations regarding ethical frameworks and boundaries around AI. Women must be included.

As for the jobs that may disappear due innovations in AI? The majority of them are being undertaken by women.

A 30 per cent target? How about 40

Carol Schwartz described herself as an “terrorist” rather than an advocate for change at a law firm event in Sydney this week.

The Reserve Bank board member back at a new target from the Australian Securities Exchange pushing companies that have boards that are at least 30 per cent female.

Not that Schwartz doesn’t want to see more women. Rather, she questioned the lack of ambition and pushed for a 40/40/20 approach, including a quotas for women.  The ASX 200 is now at 29.7 per cent.

Schwartz added that change is seriously slow and she’s been discussing the same things for 30 years now.

Can we do better than 30 per cent?

Why does it take leaving to speak out?

This week former deputy Liberal party leader Julie Bishop revealed that when she found herself as one woman in a 19-person Cabinet, in which the then PM (Tony Abbott) appointed himself ‘Minister for Women’, she knew there was a long way to go on gender equality.

Appearing at multiple events over the past few days and doing a number of interviews, Bishop also backed calls to see gender equality issued as a criteria for companies bidding for part of the $50 billion in Federal contracts on offer. She’s spoken at multiple women’s events and delivered plenty of valuable insights regarding the representation of women in politics.

And I’m thrilled to see her out there – and even better, out there and getting her comments in media headlines.

But the fact it takes a woman announcing that she is stepping down before she feels comfortable speaking out – especially a woman as formidable as Bishop – is absolutely telling.

Part of it, I’m sure, is the very fact that she’s been the only woman in the room for much of her career. Part of it could also be because she saw and experienced gender discrimination first hand when she was so quickly eliminated from the leadership race for the Liberal party, despite being the most experienced person available.

Perhaps a significant part is the fact that the Liberal Party has become increasingly hostile towards women in recent years, as Anne Summers so brilliantly articulated at the National Press Club earlier this week. Could Bishop have spoken up in such an environment, even behind closed doors?

Can more employers follow this bold thinking? 

At this time of year we often see some large employers making some promising workplace policy announcements, often in support of working parents.

I’m impressed by Deloitte and QBE’s new paid parental leave policies offering an equal payment to new mothers and fathers regardless of their secondary or primary parenting status. It shows the kind of bold thinking that’s required to really shift change on this (if only, however, we could see such gender equal opportunities offered and pushed within the national paid parental leave scheme).

Meanwhile, Credit Suisse is offering a $7500 subsidy to new mothers, with 100 per cent of such parents taking up the offer first announced a year ago. This kind of payment shows employers are willing to spend on keeping new mothers in the workforce – although in Credit Suisse’ case, it also may show the effects of the new means-tested childcare rebate, which now sees some women (particularly those on higher salaries in the financial services sector) missing out.

These are great steps and shows the value being placed on female talent. Can smaller employers follow their lead?

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