Is Australia's gender gap threatening economic progress?

MELBOURNE -- Australia is falling behind in equal opportunity – what more, it’s hurting business. Three new business groups aim to turn the trend.
Written by Lieu Thi Pham, Contributor

MELBOURNE – Australia’s reputation as an equal opportunity leader came under question last month in a global gathering of thinkers at the Creative Innovation (ci2013) conference in Melbourne. Attracting a crowd of corporates, nonprofits, senior government executives, academics, small- to medium-sized business owners and entrepreneurs, the panel discussion on ethical leadership turned into a heated gender debate making it one of the most talked about topics on Twitter in Australia.

Although it was acknowledged that diversity went beyond gender issues, the panel speakers were clearly driving a women’s agenda in the session. “We won’t have ethical leadership in Australia until we have shared power,” declared Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, addressing over 600 delegates.  

Australia claims to be a proponent of gender balance, however recent statistics reveal a major shortfall of women in leadership. According to the Australian Government's Workplace Gender Equality Agency, only 3 percent of Australian CEOs are female, a statistic that seems counterproductive considering studies show that companies with more women in leadership positions are more profitable.

Carol Schwartz (Photo: Women For Media)

The Australian Institute of Company Directors corroborate this under-representation, revealing that as of last month, only 16 percent of board positions were held by women in the ASX 200 (Australian stock exchange companies).

2012 study by the University of Singapore, reveals a more positive snapshot. It reported Australia, along with New Zealand and the Philippines, ranked among the top three for women’s economic opportunity in the Asia-Pacific Region. However, the Global Gender Gap Index shows Australia, once a leader worldwide, is falling behind. The country dropped eight places in the rankings between 2006 and 2011.

While the government debates the efficacy of quotas and targets, key groups in Australia are already taking an active role in reversing this trend.

Carol Schwartz, a speaker at the Ci2013 conference and a founding chair of nonprofits Our Community and the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia (WLIA), is looking at industries with gross gender imbalance, and is responsible for the Women for Media (WFM) initiative which aims to increase female representation in the media.

Launched in March 2012, WFM represents a network of over 140 women who are leaders in business, finance, government and the not-for-profit sector, providing journalists with a direct channel to sources for expert comment on topics in their fields. 
Creative Innovation 2013 Panel (Photo: Graham Denholm)
As part of the initiative, the WFM commissioned a study in 2012 analyzing 81 metropolitan daily newspapers across a week in Australia. It found that females accounted for only 10 percent of commentary in financial stories and only 14 percent in business stories. Overall, men represented 80 percent of all newspaper commentary.

“We aim to increase the level and visibility of female commentary and opinion in the Australian media and subsequently ensure highly visible role models for other women,” said Schwartz of her organization’s innovative advocacy model.

Another group addressing gender issues in business is the League of Extraordinary Women, Australia's largest group of female entrepreneurs. Launched in 2011, the League runs networking events to encourage women in business to support each other. Today the organization has attracted over 6,000 members across the country. 

Next year the League will lead a women's forum at the global G20 Young Entrepreneurs Alliance in Sydney. League cofounder Sarah Riegelhuth, having just returned from this year's event in Moscow, told SmartPlanet that Australia was the only country out of all the G20 nations to have had an equal gender delegation. 

"Now I know this is not representative of everything in this country, however it gives me more hope for the future," she said. "Perhaps we're nearer the tipping point to equality than we think, the trick is to not take our foot off the gas as we get closer to achieving this."

While the League continues to nurture a new generation of young female leaders, an unexpected group has emerged to provide a more immediate response.   
MCC (Photo: Australian Human Rights Commission)
Last month, the Male Champions of Change (MCC) a group of Australia’s most influential male CEOS and chairpersons, released a report listing the actions they have taken in their respective workplaces to help close the gender gap.

Broderick, who is credited for starting the MCC has helped the group start the “panel pledge” in Australia, an initiative in concert with a global movement asking men to decline speaking at conferences where women are not properly represented.

The pledge movement contrasts with what's happening at the highest level of leadership -- the Australian Government. Last September, the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott came under fire in the national media for having only one woman in his 19-member cabinet. 

It is puzzling why women's input have not been more broadly sought in government's top positions when studies have shown women to be of measurable benefit to business. A Reibey Institute 2010 study reported ASX 500 companies with female board representation outperformed companies without gender diversity by more than an 8 percent return on equity over five years. 

This potential financial impact extends beyond corporations. Goldman Sachs, a global investment bank, revealed that closing the gender gap could boost Australia’s GDP by 11 percent.

The global context of women in leadership and its economic impact are two compelling reasons for reform in Australia. 

“We need to break down the walls and silos which divide us and foster 'positive human collisions,'” Ci2013's producer Tania de Jong said, reflecting on the leadership discussions. “Ethical and visionary leadership in all spheres of business, community and society will enable the honesty and collaboration required to deal with the challenges of the future.”

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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