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Equality Means Business: advancing gender equality through corporate leadership

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

Thank you Julie McKay, UN Women Australia, and UN Global Compact Network Australia for this opportunity to address you today at this important Summit.

It is a great pleasure to address this conference in my new role as Co-Chair of the Women’s Empowerment Principles Leadership Group alongside Joe Keefe, President & CEO of Pax World Managent. Its a great privilege to step up into a global role on the WEPs so watch this space - you'll be hearing much more about them from me!

When I first learnt about the WEPs, a collaborative initiative between UN Women and the UN Global Compact I must admit to being a little sceptical. I asked myself "Are these generic principles just another vehicle for gender washing? Will organisations sign up and then do nothing?"

And that is always the risk with a set of principles which are easy to adopt but incredibly difficult to deliver. Because as we all know there is no single solution to promoting gender equality – no one action you can take that will make all the difference. As many of the CEOs I work with tell me "driving gender diversity is the most difficult issue we deal with every day"! And they are right, it is. If it was easy we would have done it by now. But they also say, "this issue is not beyond our capability to solve. Excuses are just that."

And this is one reason I am committed to promoting the Women's Empowerment Principles (WEPs)[1] in Australia. There are many leaders of organisations across every sector committed to taking action. They are looking for guidance and the WEPs answers that call. The WEPs provides a flexible framework and a structure to make progress in any organisation. The WEPs ensure that those committed to a building a more gender equal Australia get off on the right foot. The WEPs are a vitally important tool for advancing gender equality in the business sector.

But as you will learn today - signing on to the WEPs is the easy part, and by itself not enough! The WEPs must become a living, breathing part of how your organisation functions.

Today I want to talk about how the WEPS principles are being implemented through the individual and collective actions of corporate leadership in Australia. I have been asked to focus on Principle 1,
"Establish high level corporate leadership for gender equality".

The examples I will draw on are from the MCC as it is a group of organisations and leaders I know best.

But before I do, let me paint the picture of gender inequality in Australia today. These issues remain unaddressed both here and across many other countries:

  • whether it be in the form of the gender pay gap, which in Australia is currently at 18.2%, - WGEA daughter water campaign.
  • or the fact that the majority of unpaid caring work, whether that’s caring for children, or a family member or friend with disability, chronic illness or frailty due to older age[2] - is undertaken by women;
  • whether its the gender gap in retirement incomes and savings as a result of women moving in and out of the paid workforce due to their caring responsibilities and the inequalities – in Australia women have approximately half the retirement income and savings of men;[3] or whether it’s the under-representation of women in leadership positions, in the community in business, in the board rooms and in parliaments. Moved from 8.3% in 2009 to 18.3% as of August 2014 - a significant increase given we moved only 0.2% in the previous decade! But in 2012, women held 9.7% of executive key management personnel positions in the ASX 200, up from 8.0% in 2010.

What has also become clear is that promoting gender equality not only promotes and protects the rights of affected women; it also contributes to better functioning organisations and businesses. Not only that, without women’s increased participation in paid work we wil not create the strong economy we desire.

True also in Japan - Abes economic rejuvenation

Even here in Australia:

  • The Grattan Institute has identified that a six per cent increase in women’s workforce participation could generate an increase in Australia’s gross domestic product by $25 billion.[4]

But despite evidence of the benefits of gender equality, we continue to see unacceptably low representation of women in leadership.
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.

Many of you will have heard me say that to deliver equality for women in Australia we must firstly identify where power is held. In our nation, as in many other countries, power is unequally distributed whether that be in the family, in organisations or indeed in the Parliament. It still largely resides in the hands of men. if we want to create change we need men taking the message of gender equality to other men.

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.

Not only that, 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.

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

How did this begin?

I picked up the phone and rang 23 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 they step up as leaders and use their power and influence, their collective voice and wisdom to create change for women in Australia?

Some of the MCCs had had success in advancing women, while others had been the subject of intense scrutiny for the lack of progress within the organisations they lead. Some members were direct competitors in business. But they were united by a shared objective of increasing the representation of women in leadership roles.

As with the WEPs, original motivations for signing up as a Male Champion varied. Many wanted to capture the diversity advantage for their organisations. Others wanted to play a part in creating a world where their daughters could thrive as equally as their sons. Some were just curious to learn more.

In the early days, it would have been easy to dismiss the group as simply another “boys club”. A few people did, especially given there was clearly a reputational and relationship-building opportunity on offer through participation. It took us some time to come to grips with the underlying issues, but once we did, the imperative for a focus on action became clear. We agreed that every member had to play their part and that we would not tolerate free-riders.

Every single MCC admits to being imperfect as a role model on gender equality. On occasion their actions and words can still unconsciously and inadvertently come across as impolitic or outdated in a world of gender-nuanced norms and language. But they are committed to learning from their mistakes. This is what strong leadership looks like. Listening first, learning through collaborating with others and then taking strong action.

A good example of this is General David Morrison, Chief of Army, who joined our group in 2013. Shortly after, disturbing cases of sexual misconduct in the army were publicly aired.

Some might have wondered back then, “How could this person allow himself to be called A Male Champion of Change?”

We were among the first of 1.4 million people world-wide to see General Morrison’s fierce and acclaimed video message responding to the issues and heralding the Army’s intent to overhaul the culture, personnel, policies and practices that enabled such behavior to occur.
General Morrison publicly and firmly told his troops “there is simply no place for that type of behavior in this army”. To those who by rank were leaders in the organisation, he reminded them “that the standard you walk past is the standard you accept”.

General Morrison exemplifies our intent. The MCCs are not necessarily champions because of their achievements. They are champions because they want to lead tangible action to achieve change.

This is what WEPs Principle 1 is all about. The desire to take action and make a difference - the ability to exhibit strong and visible leadership, the power and influence to affect change.

Most of the MCCs still fall short of their aspiration when it comes to the progress they have made. They squirm at the thought of been named or held up as “a Champion”. But I have seen first hand the need for those with influence to take action on gender equality, to step up and lead.

The men in collaboration with Chief Executive Women have developed a model to examine whether they are living up to their own aspirations in championing women. As leaders they are analysing four elements of their leadership approach:

what I say

how I act,

what I prioritise and

what I measure.

For example, I say I’m interested in gender diversity but all I talk about is revenue and expenses. I say I want an inclusive culture but I schedule meetings at 8am.  We include gender balance KPIs in our performance scorecard but don’t take action when they are not met.  These are the behaviours where there is a disconnect between the leadership we think we are providing and our own leadership shadow. These are the behaviours that must change if we are to lead.

The models the Male Champions have developed to support their leadership, extend and implement WEPs principle 1 and are freely available from the MCC website.

WEP Principle 1 - Male Champions of Change
We are not champions because of our achievements. We are champions because we want to lead tangible action to achieve change.

The men are also stepping up as leaders by making visible the bias and harmful gender stereotypes that prevent the status quo from changing. 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. As one of the Champions says “its like putting on a new pair of glasses and seeing the world in a whole different way”.

They have adopted bold strategies such as their "All roles flex" initiative where a number of large organisations are changing the starting point so that all roles will now be available in a flexible work arrangement. They have adopted the panel pledge to ensure they do not automatically accept invitations to speak at events where there are few women. And their supplier multiplier initiative will ensure that more than 30 billion in annual spend is directed to those partners and suppliers who also care about gender equality.
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.

In the last 12 months, despite being the busiest men in our country, they have spoken at over 150 major women’s leadership events in Australia, Washington, London, New York, Tokyo and Brazil to name but a few – persuading others that they must get on board.

With the advent of the WEPs and strategies such as the MCC we now have the beginnings of change, a path to a more equal future, but as WEPs principle 1 states - this is about strong and visible leadership.

As Jayne Hrdlicka CEO of Jetstar says “If not you, then who will model the leadership behaviors of inclusion?”

Promoting gender equality is a journey characterised by persistence. It’s hard work, it takes time and it starts with us.

If we do not actively and intentionally include women in the manner prescribed by the WEPs, we will unintentionally exclude them.

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.

Adopting the Women's Empowerment Principles would be a good first step.

Thank you.


[1] United Nations Women, ‘Women Empowering Principles’. At (viewed 7 November 2013).
[2] Australian Human Rights Commission (2013) Investing in care: Recognising and valuing those who care, Volume 1 Research Report, Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney.
[3] Australian Human Rights Commission (2013) Investing in care: Recognising and valuing those who care, Volume 1 Research Report, Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney
[4] Grattan Institute, Game-changers: Economic reform priorities for Australia (2012), p 39. At… (viewed 26 February 2014).

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner