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‘Best practice in workplace culture for the attraction and retention of women’ (2008)

Sex Discrimination

‘Best practice in workplace culture for the attraction and retention of women’

by Elizabeth

Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age

Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

NSW Public Sector –
Senior Women’s Network

Coles Theatre, Powerhouse
Museum, Sydney

24 June

I want to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which
we are gathered, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I pay my respects to
their elders past and present.

It brings me great pleasure to be here with such a large group of highly
skilled and dynamic women.

I am delighted to talk to you today about how workplaces can best attract and
retain women. But more than that, how policies and practices at work can help
both female and male employees achieve their potential.

As working women yourselves, I have no doubt you all have a pretty good idea
what sorts of workplace cultures serve women best. In truth, I am very much
looking forward to hearing your views on this topic and learning what works for

In my experience, having firm, clearly-communicated policies to protect women
from disadvantage in the workplace is a great start, but it is strong
leadership, positive role-modelling and support networks, that make the real
difference to women’s experiences of work.

It is very encouraging to see so many women here tonight who fill senior
positions in the public sector. Things are obviously improving. But we are still
no where near the tipping point of true gender equality across Australia’s
decision-making roles.

For example, in my own field - law - nearly 70 per cent of Australia’s
graduates are women, yet their median salaries just one year after graduation
are $1,600 less than their male colleagues. And who is making it to the top? In
New South Wales firms of 21 partners of more, women represent only one in five
partners, while in the Federal Court of Australia, women only make up 13 per
cent of the bench. The fact is that in 2008, women are still fighting incredible
odds in terms of career progression.

We know women in full-time work earn only 84 cents in the male dollar and in
recent years this gap has actually widened. At the Human Rights Commission we
received 472 complaints in 2006-07 under the Sex Discrimination Act. 87 per cent
of these complaints were from women and 81 per cent related to employment. And
that’s just the formal complaints lodged- the tip of the iceberg really. I
know scores more women either do not know they have legal protections in this
area, or are too afraid of losing their jobs to take action.

As a society, we embrace the fact that men and women are equals. Yet at work
women continue to held back, paid less and discriminated against. This cannot
stand. Opening the workplace up to men and women equally is an important step to
achieving gender equality.

And the good news is, its great for business! Actively attracting, developing
and retaining women has huge benefits for employers, including public sector

For instance, women’s perspectives in the decision-making process can
be enormously valuable. In the public service, having a diversity of opinions
around the table – including those of women – is more likely to
result in policies and programs which reflect the values of our whole community.

A recent NSW Government study concluded that in this state alone, if the
current labour participation and retirement trends continue, by 2030 there will
be 300,000 more jobs than people in the workforce.
As a society we have
invested heavily in women’s education with more women finishing high
school and enrolling in university then ever before. Yet only 58 per cent of
women are employed compared to 70 per cent of men. Women remain a largely
untapped resource in our employment economy.

With Australia’s skills shortage and ageing population, employers must
compete to secure the best staff. In such an environment no employer can afford
to ignore Australia’s large numbers of professional women or to lose them,
paying enormously in turnover costs. In fact, the smartest employers now have
proactive recruitment and retention strategies aimed directly at getting women
into their workplaces and keeping them there.
How do you create a workplace
that will attract women? Strong policies are a key ingredient.

The fact remains that women take on the majority of unpaid work in our
society – managing the household, volunteering in the community and caring
for children and increasingly for elderly parents. Workplaces that recognise
this and provide access to
- paid maternity leave,

  • flexible work arrangements,
  • quality part-time work and
  • generous carers leave

will always be workplaces of choice for

The secret is to support women to balance their paid and unpaid work
rather than requiring them to choose between the two. That is what these
policies do. The availability of such conditions heavily influences
women’s decisions about where to work and whether to stay in the workforce
when unpaid caring responsibilities mount up.

While strong female-friendly policies are a great start, staff must actually
feel empowered and supported to access them. Even where first-class policies are
in place, a workplace’s culture will often be the single biggest
determinant – or barrier – to women succeeding.

As you well know, the culture of a workplace includes the beliefs, attitudes,
norms, and customs of the employees. It’s “how things are done
around here”. Often there are very subtle signals about what is
appropriate or required. Employees may perceive that, for example, you
can’t say no to interstate work trips even though they mean being away
from loved ones, that leaving work on time shows a lack of real commitment, or
that taking leave to care for a family member is just an excuse to get a day

I know the public sector has merit based recruitment and strong
female-friendly policies, but does that mean there are no barriers to
women’s success?

There has been much talk recently about Rudd 24/7 and the pressures on the
federal public service to work long hours. You may have seen reports of senior
public servants telling a senate estimates hearing that they had worked 35 hours
straight to prepare the Fuel Watch Bill for Parliament.

Think about your own workplace for a moment....

Are staff rewarded for
working frequent or unplanned overtime?
Are those earmarked for senior
management people with unbroken experience and a career path in graduated

While applying to everyone equally, such requirements for career progress
will, of course, impact most heavily on women with family or caring

Once you identify the messages people in your workplace may be receiving
about how we work and what success looks like, you will often have also
uncovered the unspoken barriers for women.

From there it can be as simple as explicitly and repeatedly debunking those
messages, and actively encouraging and supporting people to work in a way that
allows them to balance work with their other interests and responsibilities.

I am a strong believer in living the message. In my new role as Sex
Discrimination Commissioner, I will continue to advocate for, and model,
workplace flexibility.

I have negotiated my own flexible work arrangement at HREOC where I work full
time but pick my kids up two afternoons a week. As the Sex Discrimination
Commissioner, I can talk about work and family balance, but if I’m not
practising it and modelling it, I don’t have credibility.

If we want change to happen around us we have to make it happen. We need
women and men in senior roles modelling good work/life balance – because
‘we can’t be what we can’t see’.

I think actions will speak louder than words and it will be a critical mass
of women and men balancing their paid work and caring responsibilities which is
going to bring about the change we need in workplaces and over time ensure that
senior roles are truly merit-based appointments.

I would like to turn now to another aspect of workplace culture which impedes
women’s progress or sometimes repeals women altogether– gender
stereotyping and demeaning attitudes. Addressing these are big challenges for
women in the wider society and in the workplace.

Several years ago now, I was asked to deliver a speech at one of the regional
law societies. They were trying to attract more female lawyers as members. I was
asked - would I speak on flexible work practice? But no sooner had I mentioned
the words “part-time work” than a gentleman at the front stood up
and demanded “You’re not suggesting that lawyers could work
part-time are you?”

“Yes” I said and started to point to some examples that were
working well.
“Well who’s going to look after the
children?” he said.
“Well who’s
going to look after the children?”
“Well if you’re
suggesting that mothers can’t be practising lawyers I’m afraid we
will have to agree to disagree.”
“That’s exactly what
I’m suggesting!” he said.
“Can I ask you then – why
are we wasting tax payers’ money educating women and then allowing them to
think they can be productive in the paid workforce?”
“Why are
we?” he said.
“Do you have a daughter?” I asked.
“Are you educating her?”
“Yes I
am but maybe I shouldn’t be!”
Now, can you imagine working with
that man?

While we cannot control what people think, we can make it
clear to our colleagues that such views have no place at work and cannot be
acted upon. We can send the message out loud and clear wherever we encounter
such misguided opinions, that it is simply not acceptable. Of course, this can
be tough. No one wants to be the only one to stand up when the boss tells a
unsuitable joke and say “No! That’s not funny, its demeaning”
but if senior people don’t do it, who will?

A recent report from the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency
found that nearly half of all employees believe that a boys’ club exists
within their organisation, and that nearly 40 per cent of women and 30 per cent
of men believe men progress more quickly in their workplace than women.

Women can be important agents of change in the workplace. We can broaden the
understanding of the issues affecting the progress of female staff, and take
responsibility for bringing the most capable employees through regardless of
their gender.

One very simple way of doing that is through mentoring. Women mentoring men
in large numbers can, in itself, create a groundswell of workers with first-hand
experience of the value of female staff and a greater understand of the barriers
to women’s progress.

As women in senior roles you also have an enormous ability to support other
women to reach their potential in the workforce. Madeline Albright once said
“there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other
women.” While I would never be so harsh, I certainly agree that it is
especially important for women to support each other! In fact, a number of
researchers have found that supportive mentors and role models are critical to
women’s advancement in the workforce, particularly in the early years of
their careers.

One study on the effects of mentoring on business school graduates in the US
reported that individuals experiencing extensive mentoring relationships
received more promotions, had higher incomes, and were more satisfied with their
pay and benefits than individuals without structured role modelling

Findings like this provide a solid foundation for the argument that
leadership and role modelling are important components of success and
advancement in the workplace.

But this is only part of the story. Researchers have also shown that mentors
and role models carry out important psychosocial functions. In other words,
those in leadership roles also have a positive part to play in contributing to
the personal growth of the fellow workers.

It is the provision of these psychosocial functions which I believe are most
useful for nurturing junior women.

I have certainly benefitted from mentoring over the years. Throughout my life
I have had some wonderful men as mentors and more recently women who have taken
me under their wing, encouraged me, advocated on my behalf and showed me a
different future. I think the absence of women role models in the early years of
my career, was attributable to the fact that there was a real absence of women
at the top in those days.

Later, many senior women had to work harder than their male counterparts to
get to those positions, so perhaps they were trying to toughen up the girls to
prepare them for what they anticipated would be the same path.

Except it
wasn't really- not in my experience anyway.

I myself never set out to be a mentor. Its not something you make a conscious
decision. The fact that you are all senior women in your agencies, means that
you will necessarily be role models whether you like it or not. So I am simply
suggesting that you make the most of it!

I don’t want you to think that because you are leaders you need to give
and give and give. Please recognise that you too need support and encouragement.

Having a strong support network, whether formal or more relaxed, provides an
excellent forum for establishing and fostering contacts, supporting and
encouraging other women, and discussing common issues. Men have been doing it
for decades over golf or cigars. We need to get in on the Act too. In fact, a
support network can be particularly important for a woman having a bad time at
work – it provides a safe place to talk without making formal complaints
or resigning.

I am so pleased to be part of today. This network is a fantastic initiative
–bringing women together to learn from each other’s experiences. But
why not set up your own? It could a formal gathering of women from all levels of
your organisation, or maybe something a little more casual. Not only would you
create a space where women can comfortably discuss the issues that worry them at
work, but those of you interesting in women’s progress in your
organisation could find out what those issues are!