UN Women National Committee Japan Symposium: Women can participate even more! How Women’s Empowerment Principles will change the future of work

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. It is such an honour to be here today with you at the UN Women National Committee Japan’s Symposium on the Women’s Empowerment Principles – and particularly to share with you some of the recent strategies in Australia for achieving gender equality.

I would like to acknowledge the support of Ambassador Bruce Miller, from the Australian Embassy here in Tokyo and to thank the UN Women National Committee Japan, for their strong support, and for holding this very important Symposium on the Women’s Empowerment Principles.

I have been fortunate to be Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission for the last six years. It is a job that has taken me from 200 metres under the sea in a submarine to the United Nations in New York, to spending time with young women survivors of acid attack in Dhakka, to camping out with Aboriginal women in the Kimberly in Western Australia, to the White House, the Pentagon and the World Bank.

That is the tremendous privilege of this role – whether you are working to support refugee women, defence force personnel, sex workers, women with disability or women in low paid jobs – every day you meet inspiring individuals – individuals committed to using whatever influence they have to create a more equal world.

In my role I have worked closely with the business and corporate sector to advance gender equality. This requires multiple and complex strategies. One thing I have learnt is that there is no single solution – no one action you can take that will make all the difference. That is one reason the Women's Empowerment Principles (WEPs)[1] are important. The WEPs provide a flexible framework and a structure to make progress in any organisation.

Let me give you a quick snapshot of the current status of women in Australia and how the WEPs are making a difference.

It wasn't so many years ago that views like this one taken directly from a 1963 Board Minute examining whether Australia should have female Trade Commissioners were commonplace. In relation to women’s employment the Board minute said:

“...it is much easier to find difficulties [with women]. Some of which spring to mind are:

(vii) a spinster lady can, and very often does, turn into a battle axe with the passing years. A man usually mellows ...”

I’m pleased to say that much progress has been made, although I do on occasion still hear attitudes and views that anchor us to an old model – a model that no longer serves us well.

Just last month the Australian Government issued a report on the status of women and girls in Australia, called Tracking equity: Comparing outcomes for women and girls across Australia[2]. The report is the most comprehensive and up to date overview of the situation of gender equality across Australia. It found that:

  • The workforce participation rates of women in the age group 15 to 65 years are almost 12 percentage points below men.[3] As of 2013 almost half the number of women in employment (46.1%) only work part time hours, compared to one in six men (16.8%). In 2013 Women are paid around 17.5% or $266 per week less than men. The average 25 year old male will earn approximately $2.4 million over the next 40 years compared to $1.5 million for the average female.
  • Mothers provide the majority of unpaid care for their children. The difficulty in finding affordable child care can impact on their decision to return to the workforce.
  • Despite positive outcomes for girls and women in school and higher education, women are not benefitting equally from work, pay and superannuation.
  • The lower labour force participation of women, their lower rates of pay and unpaid caring work impact on their financial independence in retirement. On average, women reach retirement age with $87 532 less superannuation than men.

In addition to these areas of continuing gender inequality, in most industries women are not well represented at decision-making levels.

  • In the current Australian cabinet, only one position is filled by a woman Member of Parliament (5.3%) and in the outer ministry, four of the 30 positions are filled by women (13.3%).
  • At June 2012, women comprised 39.2% of the Senior Executive Service classifications in the Australian Public Service.
  • The number of women on ASX 200 boards as of 21 November 2013 was 16.8%. In 2012, there were no women board directors in 38.5% of ASX 200 companies.
  • The Australian Government made a commitment to achieve a target of at least 40 per cent women and 40 per cent men on all Government Boards by 2015. As at 30 June 2013, women held 41.7 per cent of Government board appointments.[4]
  • In 2013, women made up 28% of equity partners in the legal fraternity[5]. In the Federal Court of Australia, there were ten (21.7%) female judges in 2013.[6]

If we compare Australia’s performance with other countries around the world, the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report ranked Australia 24th in the world.

Whilst we still have a long way to go, we have the beginnings of change.

In 2011 the Australian Securities Exchange's Corporate Governance Council introduced reforms that required all listed companies to establish gender diversity policies[7] including “measureable objectives” and report against them.

This initiative saw a seismic shift in women’s representation on corporate boards, with the number of women on ASX 200 Boards doubling from 2008 to 2013.[8] Currently women occupy 16.9 per cent of ASX 200 Board positions[9] up from 8.3% five years ago – which is a significant increase, given we moved only 0.2 per cent in the previous decade!

The Australian Government has also introduced strong workplace gender equality laws requiring all organisations with more than 100 employees to provide detailed information about women's progression and empowerment in paid work.[10]

Whilst these initiatives have been welcomed, one area where Australia is still doing poorly is in the number of women at senior executive levels.

This was confirmed in the recent Australian Census of Women in Leadership, produced by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. It found that:

  • Less than 1 in 10 key management personnel in the ASX 500 are women. And what’s more, 63% of ASX 500 companies have NO WOMEN in key management positions at all.
  • Less than 4% of CEOS in the ASX 200 are women.

Part of the reason for this is that to achieve a critical mass of women in senior positions, most organisations must experience significant cultural evolution. While much of the formal or overt discrimination against women has been removed in Australia, the indirect discrimination that remains is corrosive and more difficult to combat. It takes the form of “gender asbestos” – attitudes, beliefs and unconscious bias that is built into the walls, floors, ceilings, structures and practices of organisations. It is often invisible and therefore more difficult to change.
Having been in my role for six years now I have become more and more convinced of one thing. And that is – that to deliver equality for women we actually have to focus on men. And we must also make the case for change personal.

Why men? In my view, one reason many initiatives to progress gender equality have not delivered is that they focus solely on engaging and changing women — from the way women network to the way women lead. Too many organisations look to women alone to change the organisational practices that maintain the status quo. Such an approach fails to recognise the site of most organisational power. The fact is that in most businesses both the human and financial resources are controlled by men.

Placing the onus on women to ‘fix the problem’ of women's under-representation means that any failures will be laid at the door of women, rather than identified as systemic deficiencies.

Why personal? The second reason that change has been slow is that we have failed to embrace at an emotional or personal level the case for change. We might understand the case for change with our head (that greater gender diversity leads to better organisational performance) but we have not embraced it with our heart. By that I mean the deeply held beliefs we have about the role of men and women - our gender schema – about who cares and who works – the thoughts we internalised at a very young age when we first placed our feet on the ground and looked around to understand the place of women and men in the world today – those beliefs clash with the case for change. And this is the case for all of us. This makes it difficult for us to accept a new model – a model where leadership is shared between men and women.

We need to stop treating gender equality as if it is just a women’s issue.

Minimising gender disparities requires behavioural changes amongst both women and men. It requires us to transform workplace norms and structures that entrench existing gender inequalities, including those that reinforce the male model of work.

Without the avid support of men – men who currently dominate the leadership group in most large businesses and control most of the financial and other resources - substantial progress is unlikely.

Creating change therefore requires men to take the message of gender equality to other men. It requires men to get on board, to take action and to encourage their peers to do likewise.

So today I thought I would talk about how this idea of focussing on men might work in two very different contexts – drawing on my work in the corporate world and in the Australian military.

About two years ago, I established the Male Champions of Change - a leadership group in Australia – a group that has brought the WEPs to life through collaboration and innovative strategies. I want to share some of this work with you today.

How did this begin?

I picked up the phone and rang 21 of Australia’s most powerful and influential men – men who lead Australia’s iconic companies like Telstra, Qantas, Commonwealth Bank and Woolworths – men who lead global organisations like Citibank and IBM – men who hold the most senior roles in Government – Secretary of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Treasury and the Army – and I made a personal plea. Would these men use their power and influence, their collective voice and wisdom to create change for women in Australia?

I remember the first conversation I had. This particular CEO had twins – a boy and a girl. I explained to him that in Australia today women hold only 3% of CEO positions of the top 200 companies and only 17% of board directorships. That in every sector in Australia the basic rule is that the higher up you go the less women you see. That these results exist despite in 2012 women representing more than 60% of university graduates[11] and are 50.8% of Australia's population. And finally I told him that while women were excluded from power - economic, political and social - they would be marginalised all across Australia.

Whilst we've been talking about the numbers for decades, what shifted for this CEO was the understanding that without intervention by decent powerful men, this story would become his daughter's story. His daughter would not have the same opportunities as his son – all because she was a girl. Not only did he understand the case for change with his head he started to understand it with his heart. What father wouldn't want his daughter to have an equal chance at a life free from man-made barriers.

As one of the Male Champions explains “Let’s not pretend that there aren't already established norms that advantage men. Men invented the system. Men largely run the system. Men need to change the system." And that's what the Male Champions of Change strategy is all about - men changing the system.

With that in mind, I remember our first get together, 21 A-type personalities and me – some having travelled thousands of miles to attend, came together to take ownership and commit to the difficult decisions that needed to be taken. As one man said “This issue is not beyond our intellectual capacity to solve. Excuses are just that!”

The discussions are serious, they are led by men, and action is taken. What I find interesting is how many of the areas the Male Champions of Change are working in align with the Women’s Empowerment Principles.

Last month the Male Champions came together at a public launch to which they had invited Chairmen of Boards comprising no women - CEOs with few women in the executive team and hundreds of men - not just fellow travellers - to report on actions they have taken over the last year.

Their main message was that gender equality is about leadership. In line with WEP Principle 1 - ‘establishing high-level corporate leadership for gender equality’, the men have developed a model to examine whether they are living up to their own aspirations in championing women. So they are exploring models of leadership that promote gender equality. As leaders they are analysing four elements of their leadership approach:

  • what I say
  • how I act,
  • what I prioritise and
  • what I measure.

Early on through honest conversations they started to understand their leadership shadow. They are analysing their diaries, conducting consultations with employees on their leadership approach and developing the most effective leadership model for a CEO that’s doing this well. They are then devising a transition plan to migrate their own leadership practices to the new model and they are cascading this model through their organisations. There were breakthrough moments when these leaders recognised that their reality was not matching their intention.

They have also written to every business leader in Australia urging them to take action. Over 150,000 copies of their letter have been distributed.
Another area they are working on is making visible the bias and harmful gender stereotypes that prevent the status quo from changing. This aligns with Principle 2 of WEPs, ‘Treat all women and men fairly at work – respect and support human rights and non-discrimination’. One of the strategies they are using in this area is to ask: ‘50/50, If Not? Why Not?’. They ask: ‘If women make up over 50 per cent of Australia's population why am I not seeing 50 per cent of women in ......’.

By posing this question these leaders confront old norms and ask ‘why not?’ instead of ‘why?’. When you apply this lens to all areas of the organisation you elevate the discussion and challenge long held assumptions - assumptions which can either be ‘de-bunked’ as myths or addressed as significant barriers to women’s progression.

To give you an example of this in practice, one of the Champions when presented with the list of people selected for the global leadership program asked, ‘why am I not seeing 50 per cent women on this list?” “ There’s been a mistake” he was told. The next day the list came back to him and they had found 3 more women. “No” he said “You’re not hearing me – why am I not seeing equal numbers of women and men?” This led the organisation to re-examine the eligibility criteria for the program, which was excluding women, as the criteria required people to have lived and worked in an international office. By resetting this one criterion to reflect other types of experience related to international mindset such as experience in managing overseas staff and offshore teams, the organisation was able to increase the number of women in the program from 22 per cent to 35 per cent.

Another bold strategy that aligns to is the “All Roles Flexible” initiative launched by one of the MCCs in the telecommunications industry. From 2014 all roles will be advertised as available in a flexible work arrangement. This has the potential to impact over 40,000 employees in this one organisation and other MCCs are looking to adopt a similar strategy. This initiative changes the starting point of work so that flexible work becomes part of the mainstream, not just a poor relation to full time work.

The Male Champions have also been strong public advocates for gender equality – keeping a high visibility of this issue on the nation’s agenda. This aligns with of the WEPs, ‘promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy’. The Male Champions have presented at more than 100 conferences and events over the last 12 months, travelling from Washington, to Rio, to New Zealand and around Australia. They have also taken a “panel pledge” which means that they will no longer automatically accept invitations to speak at events where there are few women. Some of the Champions have asked to be replaced at conferences so that their speaking slot can be assigned to a woman, thereby giving her greater visibility.

There are now related groups of Male Champions in Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and New Zealand and sector based groups such as one focused on companies involved in infrastructure, engineering and the built environment. And the model is looking to being adopted in a number of emerging economies across the world.
Another area they are working in is Gender Reporting, which reflects WEPS, ‘measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality’. The Male Champions are determined to take the lead on gender reporting in Australia by going beyond what is required by law. They will report on an expanded set of detailed measures annually. As a collective they have taken the view that if we are really serious about this - every leader in Australia should have some sort of gender balance target in their scorecard, ideally tied to a remuneration outcome. This includes corporate, government and the military! And that’s what they're working towards.

The Male Champions of Change is an action-oriented and results-driven group. They intend to lead, contribute to, and learn from insights, ideas and interventions of others. They wish to share their strategies and results as widely as possible.

Implicit in this is an assumption that they will deal increasingly with suppliers and partners who also meet an adequate standard of gender equality. This has led to the development of their “supplier multiplier’ initiative which aligns with Principle 5 of the WEPs – “implement ... supply chain ... practices that empower women.”

Under this initiative a number of Male Champion’s organisations have committed to ensuring their gender balance aspirations are reflected in policies such as their Supplier Standards and Codes of Practice. They are also committed to including female owned enterprises in their supply chain. They have started to communicate with suppliers about the importance of gender balance - encouraging and supporting suppliers to build and present more gender-balanced teams. These commitments have the potential to impact 54,000 suppliers and $30 billion of procurement spending annually across the Male Champions of Change group.

The Male Champions of Change has been a controversial strategy. Some thought I was suggesting that we women were waiting to be saved by corporate knights in shining armour galloping paternalistically into territory we’ve occupied for years?

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Women’s voices remain critical to advancing gender equality and eliminating violence against women BUT what is also clear is that change will only come when men take the message of gender equality to other men.

But the same idea - to deliver equality for women we must focus on men – has had widespread ramifications in a very different environment – the Australian Defence Force.

Some of you may have heard about an alleged incident that occurred in the Australian tri-service military academy, or ADFA, in April 2011 involving a male and female officer cadet.

After the incident broke on Australian television, and as the young female cadet anonymously told her story, the community outrage was palpable. Everyone had a view. Was this just young people behaving badly or was it something more? Was it an example of the sexualisation and marginalisation of women within a military culture?

It was into this world that I unexpectedly found myself drawn when the Minister for Defence asked me to head up a review into the treatment of women in the Australian Defence Force.

The Review was extensive. My team and I have visited over 60 military bases across Australia. We spent time under water in submarines and above water on warships. We travelled in tanks and armoured vehicles - flew in Black Hawk helicopters and C130s.

And we visited offshore military bases including forward operating bases beyond the wire in Oruzgan Province in Afghanistan, as well as elsewhere across the Middle East. We have spoken directly to thousands of Defence Force members.

As I travelled across Australia and beyond, a great many people told me stories – stories about how the ADF had served them very well. That was the experience of by far the vast majority.

But others told me deeply distressing stories - stories that had never been told before.

That is when it occurred to me that, while it was important for me to document these stories – it was even more important that those who had the power to change the system - powerful men - heard first hand these personal narratives - that they would both hear and feel the case for change.

So I flew in women from all across Australia, many with their mothers, so that the Chiefs could hear and feel what extreme exclusion means; to know what it’s like to be on exercise for 2 months when no-one speaks to you; to feel what it is like to be sexually assaulted by your instructor, the very person you go to for advice; to understand what it is like to face your perpetrator every day at work even though you reported his assault to your superiors; to learn what it means to have your career ruined and your peers ostracise you because you had the courage to make a complaint.

But would this work? Military and emotion are not words that many would argue sit easily side by side.

I remember that first face to face session – the Service Chief sitting uncomfortably in his chair – the mother nervously escorting her daughter to the chair beside, a box of tissues in the middle. Where to begin? And then that courageous young woman saying “Sir, I’m so nervous” and the Chief replying, “Believe me, I’m scared too.”

In that moment I knew we had a chance at change. It takes an authentic and compassionate military leader to admit that he fears what he’s about to be told.

The Chiefs heard the pain of mothers – mothers who had encouraged their daughters into the Service – mothers who had believed fervently that the enemy lay outside the military not within. As one mother said “I gave you the person I love most in the world and this is how you’ve treated her?”

And at the end to hear the Chief say “If I could stand in your shoes and take away your pain every day, I would choose to do that. What happened to you should never have happened. I am so deeply sorry. I will do everything I can to make sure this never happens again.”

These sessions were the defining moments of the Review.

When I look back – this is the work that reinforced for me that when you work with men to engage both their head and heart even in the most traditional and conservative organisations, transformational change happens.

I want to share with you some further evidence of the transformational change that has been happening in Australia’s military and this aligns to WEPs principles 1 (leadership) and 3 (health, safety and wellbeing).

A couple of months ago the Chief of Army who is also a Male Champion of Change delivered a 3 minute address to his troops by You Tube, in which he spoke directly about the battle for gender equality in the army.

As you know being a values-led organisation requires courage. You need the courage to challenge, to raise difficult issues with integrity.

You need the courage to ask ‘why are we doing it this way, and to challenge the status quo.’ And that is exactly what Lt General David Morrison, the current Chief of Army and one of the most courageous leaders I have ever worked with, is doing.

I would like to play you a short excerpt from the Chief of Army’s address to demonstrate what I mean – it has now had almost 1.4 million views!!

And just in case you thought courage cannot result in systemic change I was fascinated to read recently that a Magistrate in the Victorian County Court, ordered a defendant soldier before him accused of sexually harassing a female, to leave the courtroom and watch the Chief of Army’s video which had been set up in the room next door and then come back for sentencing. As I said to David – he’s been built in to Australia’s criminal justice system as a sentencing aid!!


Shortly after the video was released David called me to say “What’s so interesting?””

Well what’s so interesting is that powerful, decent men hardly ever stand up and speak out about gender equality and violence against women in such a compelling manner.

Powerful, decent men are vital allies in this struggle. When a career soldier looks down the barrel with a steely eye and takes a stand on behalf of women it gives permission to every man to imitate this behaviour.

What I know is that the achievement of gender equality cannot sit on the shoulders of women alone. When we take shared ownership, men and women, that’s when we stride forward together.

While the Male Champions will change corporate environments, and the military cultural reform is progressing, none of this will matter at all, if we don't change the informal social structures that sit around us and exist within our own families.

Are we prepared to push to one side the talent, creativity and capability of over 50% of the world's population? Because that's what's at stake!

We have the beginnings of change, a path to a more equal future, but it starts with us – each and every one of us in this room.

This room is full of talented and visionary women and men. My invitation to each of you today is - what action can you take, no matter how big or small that can move us to a more gender equal world – a world where dignity and respect lie at the core. We owe it to ourselves, to women and men in Australia and Japan and around the world to work together to achieve gender equality.

And I’m not just talking about the big things such as major policy reforms. Change often comes from something as simple and courageous as telling a story.

That’s what Margot did.

Margot attended a speech I delivered last year on violence against women and its overlap into paid work. She called me the next day and told me that, following my speech, she had called all her staff together, she’s a senior manager in a large bank. She explained “I told them I wanted to do something different at the staff meeting this morning – I wanted to talk about violence against women – about domestic violence, the prevalence data and what it means for our business.”

And she opening the meeting by saying “I want to start by recounting my own story – a story I’ve never told before. It’s the story of growing up in a violent household, of wiping the blood from my mother’s face, of taking her to hospital – of the shame and silence.” She concluded by saying to her staff ‘Now I want you to do one thing. I want you to tell everybody in this bank my story because by telling my story I hope it will be easier for others to tell theirs’.

Simple, courageous and mighty effective. Her bank was the first bank in Australia to offer paid leave for women experiencing domestic violence.

When people ask me what will be my greatest achievement as Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner, it won’t be the military or the Male Champions of Change, it will be raising my son to believe that equality is the only path.

Thank you.

[1] United Nations Women, ‘Women Empowering Principles’. At http://www.weprinciples.org/ (viewed 7 November 2013).
[2] COAG Reform Council, Tracking equity: Comparing outcomes for women and girls across Australia. At http://www.coagreformcouncil.gov.au/reports/gender-equity/tracking-equity-comparing-outcomes-women-and-girls-across-australia (viewed 21 November 2013)
[3] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Table 18 Labour Force Status by Sex 15-64 years’, Labour Force, Australia (6202.0) (2012).
[4] Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Gender Balance on Australian Government Boards Report 2012-2013, at http://www.dss.gov.au/our-responsibilities/women/publications-articles/gender-balance-on-australian-government-boards-report-2012-2013-0 (accessed 16 October 2013).
[5] Crisp L. “Slow path to senior ranks for women: Partnership survey” The Australian (5 July 2013), at http://www.theaustralian.com.au/archive/business/slow-path-to-senior-ranks-for-women/story-e6frg97x-1226674507364# (accessed 16 October 2013).
[6] Federal Court of Australia, Current Judges (n.d.) at http://www.fedcourt.gov.au/about/judges/current-judges-appointment (accessed 16 October 2013).
[7] Australian Securities Exchange, ‘Improving gender diversity’. At http://www.asx.com.au/resources/listed-at-asx/gender-diversity.htm (viewed 16 October 2013).
[8] Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Australian Census of Women in Leadership Summary of key findings (2012). At http://www.wgea.gov.au/Information_Centres/Resource_Centre/WGEA_Publications/WGEA_Census.asp (viewed 16 October 2013).
[9] Australian Institute of Company Directors, ‘Appointments to ASX 200 Boards’. At http://www.companydirectors.com.au/Director-Resource-Centre/Governance-and-Director-Issues/Board-Diversity/Statistics (viewed 28 November 2013).
[10] Australian Government, Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, ‘The Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012’. At http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/our-responsibilities/women/programs-services/economic-security/the-workplace-gender-equality-act-2012 (viewed 16 October 2013).
[11] In 2012 56.4% of women had higher level qualifications. COAG Reform Council, Tracking equity: Comparing outcomes for women and girls across Australia, p22. At http://www.coagreformcouncil.gov.au/reports/gender-equity/tracking-equity-comparing-outcomes-women-and-girls-across-australia (viewed 21 November 2013).