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Male Champions of Change – Engaging Male Leaders for Gender Equality

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

Women Empowerment Principles – Equality Means Business: A Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue on Implications for the Post-2015 Development Agenda

UN Women/UN Global Compact/Australian Government Side Event
Commission on the Status of Women, 58th Session,
Dag Hammarskjold Library Auditorium, UNHQ


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.

Through my work it has become clear that there continue to be a number of gender inequalities that remain unaddressed in Australia and across many other countries:

  • The form of the gender pay gap, which in Australia is currently at 17.1%[1],
  • 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;
  • 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]
  • The under-representation of women in leadership positions, in the community in business, in the board rooms and in parliaments.

What has also become clear is that promoting gender equality not only promotes and protects the rights of affected women; but it also contributes to better functioning organisations and businesses – as a result of diversity of thinking, better financial results, improved decision making, reduced turnover, and utilising the best talent. Thirdly, women’s increased participation in the workforce can make a significant difference to economic growth.

  • 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]

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

Yes, we have made moved forward in some areas of gender balance in Australia – for example if we take the women on board’s agenda we have moved from 8.3% in 2009 to 17.6% as of February 2014[5] - a significant increase given we moved only 0.2% in the previous decade. We do even better on government boards (having achieved the target of 40% across many portfolios).[6]
But unfortunately, we are not yet seeing the same trajectory for women in the corporate executive ranks. The numbers are incredibly stubborn. There was almost no good news on this front in the 2013 Australian Census of Women in Leadership, produced by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency:

  • In 2012, women held 9.7% of executive key management personnel positions in the ASX 200, up from 8.0% in 2010.[7]

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 – to deliver equality for women we actually have to focus on the seat of power – which in Australia, as in many other countries still lies with 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.

A path forward - Solutions and the Male Champions of Change

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[8] 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.

In late 2013 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 these roles.’

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 Principle 2 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 Principle 6 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 another commencing in the property sector.. And the model is looking to being adopted in a number of emerging economies across the world, including in Japan.

Another area they are working in is Gender Reporting, which reflects WEPS Principle 7, ‘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.[9]

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.


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.

Thank you.

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics Average Weekly Full-Time Earnings data Catalogue no. 6302.0 (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).
[5] Australian Institute of Company Directors. At: (viewed 26 February 2014).
[6] Department of Social Services, Gender Balance on Australian Government Boards Report 2012–2013. At: (viewed 20 November 2013).
[7] Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Australian Census of Women in Leadership Summary of key findings (2012). At: (viewed 20 November 2013).
[8] 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 (viewed 21 November 2013).
[9] Australian Human Rights Commission (2013) Accelerating the advancement of women in leadership: Listening, Learning, Leading: Male champions of Change 2013, Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney.

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner