Wanted: Ambassadors for Women in the Workplace

Saturday 24 March, 2012

Warrane residents were challenged to commit to promoting gender equality in the workplace when the Deputy Chancellor of UNSW, Ms Jillian Segal AM, spoke at the College, at the conclusion of the 2012 Presentation Dinner for College Scholars on Wednesday, 21 March 2012.

Ms Segal, who is a professional company director with a legal and regulatory background, spoke about her own experience and knowledge of inequality in the workplace.

She pointed out that the poor representation of women in management positions and on company boards in Australia had grown out of a culture which “puts women in certain roles and reinforces certain stereotypes”.

“Can we break through and create a different environment where women can be valued for what they do?” she asked residents.

Ms Segal, a director of ASX Limited and the National Australia Bank, quoted a number of statistics demonstrating the inequities experienced by women, including starting salaries that were on average $2000 below those of men. In 2010, women also made up only 8.3 per cent of the membership of company boards, only 15-20 per cent of partnerships in law firms and 6 per cent of Queen’s Counsel in Australia.

Studies had confirmed that Australia was well behind other advanced economies in its promotion of women into positions of power, a situation that existed partly because women were not the best advocates for themselves.

“You are the ones who have to be the advocates,” she told residents. “It is the leadership from the top which is most important.”

Ms Segal said there was plenty of incentive for organisations to promote women more. Studies around the world had found that companies with more women at the top had higher sales because they tended to be more open to discussion and to new ideas.

Women not only represented 50 per cent of a company’s customer base but often made more purchasing decisions than men. For instance, it had been found that the decision to purchase a new car was made by a woman in 85 per cent of cases.

Ms Segal said the key to the lack of advancement of women in the workforce was an “unconscious bias” against women, partly because of a general tendency for people to hire other people like themselves. “The large corporations are now running workshops for their employees to make them aware of unconscious bias,” she said. “The education process also doesn’t give women enough confidence in themselves, so the education system has to change to give women greater confidence.”

Ms Segal said there were signs that things were starting to change. The ASX, for instance, had imposed requirements on listed companies to disclose how many women they have in senior management. Although Australia had not opted to follow countries that have set quotas for women in senior positions, some Australian companies were setting “gender targets” to raise consciousness of the need to promote women.

Warrane residents came up with a number of suggestions about how they could help women to be promoted when they entered the workforce. One idea was that they could resist the temptation to work extra long hours to get an unfair advantage over women who had family commitments. Another suggestion was that they could take paternity leave when their wives had a baby, thereby establishing a work culture where it is not only women who have caring responsibilities.

(More photos are available here).

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