Role-Modelling Workforce Participation

22 / 11 / 2014

By Sarah Capper

Female leadership has been on display in recent weeks – despite weeks saturated by coverage of the G20 Brisbane meet, with a city on partial lockdown, bar an explosion of Queensland Cops, and punters and photo journalists alike, quietly hopeful the PM would, in this instance, keep to his word, with the promise of a good Rumble in the Vegas Jungle, with the heavyweights bout in the ‘outdoorsy / sporty / blokey’ leader division – Team Australia’s Oxford/Wall boxing and DT-clad PM Tony Abbott V former KGB turned topless-wilderness-roaming and bird migration gliding expert Russian President Vladamir Putin.

But alas, for all Abbott’s threats of ‘shirt-fronting’ Putin-On-the-Ritz, it was not to be – we were instead provided with (1) awkward smiles at the Star Trek clad APEC meeting in the lead-up to G20, (and check out Judy Horacek’s offering here), (2) Herald Sun threats of Cold-War-Esque Russian invasions, with the positioning of few Russian warships off the Queensland coast (try and “stop” these boats, Mr Abbott, [insert Bond-style villain laugh]), and (3) koala hugs highlighting that even our famous lazy marsupial would choose Mr Abbott over Mr Putin for some warm and cuddlies (and rumour has it the partner of China’s leader extended her sympathies to the koala in question).

If anything, the highly anticipated G20 meeting resulted in Tony Abbott being well and truly “shirt-fronted” on the issue of climate change – an issue he and his Ministers had been desperate to point out was completely irrelevant in the lead-up to G20. Even after the US of A and China cemented a surprise historic agreement on the issue, Abbott was still happy to proudly declare his Government had axed the main mechanism that was actually addressing the issue in Australia. Putin might have been isolated by other world leaders on the Ukraine, but Abbott isolated Australia from the rest of the world on climate change.

Amongst this delicate environment of ahem, diplomacy, the two most senior women in federal parliament declared themselves at odds with each other on another issue: in identifying as feminists, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop telling the Press Club that she did not find the term “useful” in the week before G20 that she did not find the term “useful” to adopt, while in response, Labor’s Deputy leader Tanya Plibersek wrote a Fairfax opinion piece in which she listed all the reasons why she was a feminist.

“I’m a female politician, I’m a female foreign minister … get over it,” said Bishop, the only woman in Abbott’s Cabinet.

Bishop’s comments drew support from predictable circles, and condemnation from other predictable circles.

But taking an actions speak louder than words view, Labor’s spokesperson for women Senator Claire Moore said that how Bishop defines herself “is a matter for her” (however as Fairfax’ Judith Ireland reported, Moore viewed the May budget as disproportionately hurting women, “and that speaks volumes”).

Taking a similar view, but coming to a different conclusion was Sydney feminist Anne Summers, who wrote in Fairfax that she “frankly” doesn’t “give a damn whether or not Julie Bishop calls herself a feminist. What matters is what she does, as a woman and for women.”

Summers declared that Bishop was proving her worth on this measure, that “has put her name to a number of significant policies and viewpoints that I, as a feminist, can make no argument with.”

In diplomatic terms, and unlike Abbott’s foray at the weekend, Bishop is certainly showing she is more than capable to hold her own on the world stage. And it’s worth reflecting for a moment back to Abbott’s “shirt-front” threats of Putin – while the PM was threatening illegal AFL style tackling of the Russian leader, instead, Julie Bishop was at a Milan meeting quietly making good use of her diplomacy skills by ushering the Russian leader to the sidelines for a ten-minute chat in which she was able to articulate the needs of families grieving for victims of the MH17 downing in the Ukraine (yes, Prime Minister, sometimes words can be even more powerful and productive than tough empty threats – as your Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper demonstrated over the G20 weekend, by reportedly approaching Putin with the words, “I guess I’ll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine.” Rhetorical shirtfront, indeed.

Also at the G20 meeting over the weekend, and nominated by Anne Summers as demonstration of Bishop’s policies towards women, was the G20 measure to increase women’s workplace participation figures, reducing the gender gap in workforce participation by 25 per cent by 2025, which Summers says in Australia would translate as “increase women’s labour force participation from the 58 per cent where it has hovered for around a decade to 61 per cent and create some 300,000 new jobs for women.

Summers stresses that it is “difficult to overstate how important, and radical, this proposal is.

And it’s clearly needed, across our workforce, and no more starkly demonstrated in Australia than in the upper echelons of business, as the resignation of Westpac Chief Gail Kelly proved this last week – and as Tracey Spicer wrote, her resignation announcement reduced the nation’s female CEOs of the Top 200 Australian companies to just six. Yep, dismal single figures, over 190 odd blokes (and here’s betting a majority of the white anglo variety).

Gail Kelly has led by serious example – transforming the bank she headed in terms of female participation and elevation of women in managerial roles. While Julie Bishop echoed what former PM Julia Gillard has previously said – reflecting on “making it easier” for women coming up behind her, Kelly has lived and breathed it.

But this was supposedly not always the case, as the Australian’s Glenda Korporaal reported in 2012:

“The South African-born Mrs Kelly, so the word went out, was one of those successful women not really interested in promoting other women.”

Aware of this assumption, Kelly deliberately tried to remedy it, and, in 2008, publicly encouraged women in management and also launched a book on women’s empowerment, which she describes as a “liberating” experience:

“It was one of those things that, if I had my time again, I would have done it from the very beginning.”

Korporaal’s 2012 article notes that Kelly’s target of 40% women managers had almost been realised.
Indeed, Kelly’s contribution in this area is worth celebrating, as many articles covered last week with her decision to leave “while the bank was on top”.

Many of the interviews with the outgoing head of Westpac provided glimpses of Kelly’s character and admirable approach to the workplace (it should also be noted that Kelly was one of the lone voices who stood up for former Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2012, calling out the sexism she was experiencing and appealing to other business leaders to lift their game in relation to dealing with the PM).

Worth a read from last week’s coverage is Kelly’s ‘Top Seven Tips’ for succeeding at work. One of Kelly’s tips is about balancing work and family and living a “full” life. Or as she explained to ABC 7.30 host Leigh Sales, in response to the G20 push on decresing the workforce gender participation gap, that the change will also involve men embracing workforce flexibility and a greater work / life family balance:

LEIGH SALES: One of the subjects for discussion at this week’s G20 Leaders’ meeting is female workforce participation. With your departure from Westpac, the female CEO representation in the ASX 50 drops by a third. Why are we still in this situation?

GAIL KELLY: That’s a great question, Leigh. It really is a great question. I’d love to see more CEOs of the top 50 companies. And I’ve no doubt we’ll get there, although it is taking a lot longer than you or I would like to see.

I think the biggest single factor here that will support women in their goal and in their objectives to become CEOs of top, leading Australian companies is driving a more flexibility-at-work agenda – a more inclusive agenda … and what I mean by that is companies and environments that support women to live a whole life and support women through the various stages of their lives when they have young children, when children are starting out at school, they may have aged parents, have other responsibilities, but support[ing] women actually balances all of those elements. Now that requires companies to redesign workplaces for everyone – not just women, but for men as well.

LEIGH SALES: Well I was going to raise that point. Is part of the issue encouraging more men to take on flexible work so they can take on more of the home responsibilities?

GAIL KELLY: And we’re seeing more and more of that. And men love that, they want that, they also want to run whole lives and they also want to be integrally connected to their young children and the development paths of their young children. And so those days of leaving early and sort of hiding almost the fact that you’re leaving early, those days have gone.

Both Gail Kelly and Julie Bishop have displayed examples of successful, powerful leadership, albeit with different approaches. Bishop’s performance as Foreign Affairs Minister has been solid, and in this sense, she has differentiated herself from several of her male Coalition colleagues.

It is timely Abbott soon look at a reshuffle of Cabinet. Based on Bishop’s performance, and with a nod to Gail Kelly, in undertaking the G20 proposal of lessening the gender participation gap, he might do well to lead by example, and fling open that door where women remain knocking.

 

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