IWD 2021: Determined to lead the way for change
As International Women’s Day rolls around again and I reflect on the past 20 years of my career, immersed in predominantly male-dominated industries, it is hard not to think about the challenges myself and many of my female colleagues have faced.
As a female leader in the severely under-represented construction and transport industry, it is probably best not to think too hard or long about all the times we’ve been overlooked for opportunities – excused by outdated beliefs about women’s leadership abilities; or all those times we’ve been blatantly paid less than our male counterparts for doing the exact same job – for some pretty shonky reasons, too (link to ABC article).
Better still, best not go down the rabbit hole of our collective and shocking experiences of inequality in the workplace – the subtly sexist undermining of women, like at the beginning of my own career in television when I was required to collect my (male) manager’s dry cleaning and lunch – something that was not in my job description and certainly not something asked of my male colleagues at the same level.
It’s tempting to get angry; maybe a little bitter. And I must admit that is a very real feeling at times. But more than that, when it comes to gender equality and representation in the workplace, I’m inspired by how far we have come, motivated by how much further we have to go, and even more determined to lead the way for change.
Life is a collection of experiences and one of my own that had an especially pronounced impact on me – that later inspired my journey to start my own business – involved me sitting in a corporate conference of a major construction company listening to the male leaders on stage talking about recent company success and upcoming projects. One senior leader in particular spoke with pride about how revered and respected the company was within the industry. All very inspiring. During question time a female employee asked the leaders why there was little representation of women in the business. His response was a very dismissive “probably because the men like to swear and women don’t like swearing”.
If you’ve ever met me, you would know I love a good swear. So, the moment those words reached my ears I called, well, bullshit.
What a shame that, in what could have otherwise been an inspiring and exciting update from one of the most senior representatives of this massive company, instead of using his position of influence to address the gaping hole in the business and industry, this important question (and the woman who asked it) was dismissed, undermined and reduced to yet another sexist ideal.
There are so many things I wish he had said instead: that swearing had very little to do with the systemic sexism responsible for the lack of women in the industry; that there were almost no female leaders to model career progression on or to mentor other women; that major corporations such as this one made a habit of making redundancies of women on maternity leave; that the unnecessarily inflexible working hours of 7am to 6pm were inconducive to working parents (mostly women) faced with drop-off/pick-up responsibilities, or that almost none of the project roles outside of administrative functions are part time or job share, adding even more boundaries to parents wishing returning to work.
Of course, it would have been nice if he had said those things, but I wish even more that I was able to stand up and say it, because in his defence it is difficult – if not impossible – for someone to properly understand and articulate an experience that is not their own. Instead, I sat there in silence with my jaw on the floor. At the time, admittedly I didn’t feel able to speak out of fear that I would be met with eyerolls and deemed an emotional female in a room full of men.
Not being brave enough to stand up and speak out is one of my biggest career regrets, but also the beginning of a new career direction for me.
I interpret this year’s IWD theme of “challenge” as a polite way of saying “let’s use our anger and all of our experiences to drive proper change”. Equality cannot be achieved without the buy-in of both women and men. I strongly believe equality starts at home and as leaders we need to step up to ensure that all our people have the equal ability to share family responsibilities. Cultural change is only possible if both women and men are supported and encouraged to respond equally to the needs of the home.
I challenge leaders and business owners with these questions: do you expect and encourage your male team members to stay home when the children are sick or have a commitment just as you do your women employees? When a man comes to you and asks to work a part time arrangement, would you give him the same consideration as you would a woman? Are men in your business offered an equal paternity leave arrangement as your women employees? Do you consider out of the box alternative working arrangements such as job sharing / work from home / working school hours to hire the absolute best person for the role? Because if you are not considering these things you are not committed to equality – you are potentially missing out on incredible talent and your business is lacking because if it.
So, when I started my own business, I knew it was crucial that I create a culture of equality and diversity. Both women and men in my business are supported and encouraged to tend to life commitments outside of work; we have part time workers and equal parental leave opportunities. No one in my business will ever have to accept that they can’t contribute based on their gender, cultural background or because they have a family. We focus on output rather than hours and we challenge the status quo every time we hire talent.
We can turn experience into action and action into change – together.