26 March 2015

Thoughts on International Women’s Day 2015

In my final semester at university I had the pleasure of being involved in an exciting, refreshing new student-run society, the University of Sydney Network of Women - known as NOW. Launched in semester two last year, NOW aims to connect, compel and collectively inspire aspiring female leaders.

About six months on, NOW has evolved rapidly into an organisation capable of collaborating with Capital W (a similar society at the University of New South Wales) to celebrate International Women's Day. On the 13th March at the Museum of Contemporary Art, NOW co-hosted approximately 200 guests and a panel of esteemed business men and women including journalist Catherine Fox; Glen Boreham, former CEO of IBM Australia and New Zealand; Susan Ferrier, National Managing Partner of People, Performance & Culture at KPMG; Kevin McCann, Chairman of Macquarie Group; and Jessica Roth, Founder of Social Impact Hub. The panel led an engaging discussion around the theme of collaboration and gender equality within the workplace. The discourse prompted me to reflect on the existence of gender pay gaps, glass ceilings (or thick ceilings of men, as described by Catherine Fox) and unconscious bias within the corporate world.

International Women’s Day panel (L-R): Catherine Fox, Glen Boreham, Susan Ferrier, Kevin McCann & Jessica Roth

The panel also discussed the unfortunate stagnation in progress that has occurred in recent years, with females still overwhelmingly underrepresented in leadership positions across all sectors. Alarmingly, the pay gap increased by 1.5% between 1996 and 2012 to 17.4%, whilst the increase in the number of female board directors between 2002 and 2010 was only 0.2%. Throughout my education, I have never felt that I have had less opportunities than my male counterparts. Therefore, such data raises questions for me personally, as I wonder if my gender will inhibit my future career success. I ponder what is causing female underrepresentation: are women not ‘leaning in’? Are societal expectations that women are the primary child carer hindering their career success, whilst consequently inhibiting men from being able to accept more parenting responsibilities? Susan Ferrier discussed the introduction of unconscious bias training for leaders at KPMG and I questioned, will I be the victim of unconscious bias in the future?

I suppose a more important question, and one that was considered by the panel, was how can we solve this inequality? The approach established by Elizabeth Broderick, the Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, to launch the Male Champions of Change initiative offers a refreshing solution (and we were blessed by Kevin McCann and Glen Boreham’s insights, who themselves are two Male Champions of Change). This initiative aims to include men in the discourse about gender inequality and leverage their roles as leaders to instill change. Comments by male classmates who hear about NOW and in anger claim, "I'm going to create a Network of Men", reinforces the need to include men in the conversation and encourage them to campaign for gender equality (not to mention the acronym NOM isn’t quite as powerful and clever as NOW).

As Kevin McCann discussed, it's not about ‘man-praising’, where men stand above women encouraging them, it's about working alongside each other for change, recognising that gender inequality is a societal problem and that solving it will result in social and economic benefits for both sexes. NOW have come to a deeper understanding of the need for male support, and are committed to including our male classmates in future conversations (and we challenge our male peers to have the courage to be involved).

Guests at NOW and Capital W's International Women's Day Breakfast

Overall, my involvement with NOW has left me feeling empowered, enlightened and more educated on the reality of gender inequality in the workplace. Bringing this conversation to a university level is important, as it allows the leaders of tomorrow to reflect on this situation and contemplate solutions. NOW also provides a platform through which passionate, driven peers with similar desires to initiate change can connect. This has been truly enriching and will undoubtedly benefit each of us as we embark on our own journeys into the workforce.

As aptly described by American writer Gloria Steinem and echoed recently by Emma Watson, “The human race is a bird – and it needs both its wings to fly”. I look forward to working in a society where men and women can benefit from gender equality, and NOW is committed to promoting this change.

Alexandra Meek
Recent graduate of the University of Sydney Business School, Bachelor of Commerce (Liberal Studies)

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