Ladies first: why enabling women must be the top priority for economic success

Last month, CEDA turned its focus on ‘Women in leadership: Australia’s future workforce’ for its lunchtime series event in Melbourne.

During the SEEK-sponsored event, SEEK Employment Sales and Service Director, Jo Dooley, picked some of the finest brains in Australia, hosting a panel that included Cyann Ta’eed, co-founder and Executive Director of Envato; Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel; CSIRO Chief Executive, Dr Larry Marshall; and Deakin University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Jane den Hollander, discussing that a diverse workforce with women at its leading edge is now a non-negotiable for economic success.

In three sentences, Ta’eed captures how radical disruption of the traditional business model has changed the world. “The first thing to know is that a business like Envato [‘a collection of themed marketplaces, where creatives sell digital assets to help bring ideas to life’] wouldn’t have been possible 15 years ago. Imagine three 25-year-olds starting a business in a basement, getting international financial support and building up tens of thousands of people selling through an online platform. Things are moving quickly, because that’s now considered a reasonable, if difficult, thing to do.”

Diversity of thought is key to embracing ambiguity

Dr Marshall, whose organisation – CSIRO – has been at the vanguard of Australian innovation for decades, sums it up perfectly. “To navigate innovation and disruption you have to embrace ambiguity, and the only way to successfully navigate ambiguity is to listen to a wide diversity of perspectives and diversity of thought,” he says.

“If you can’t embrace diversity you can’t navigate ambiguity, and you can’t do innovation. So fundamentally that has to change. We have to get better at collaboration and we have to get better at inclusion.”

And having recently published another landmark report, ‘Tomorrow’s Digitally Enabled Workforce’, Dr Marshall knows what he is talking about.

Tackling gender balance at university level is key

Finkel says his own study of Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data shows some progress has been made in the gender diversity stakes, but there is still a strong under-representation of female graduates in the workplace.

“What you have to look at is the trajectory; the rate of change and the direction of change. And you see some very interesting things,” he says.

“We found that if you look at university graduates in the current workforce you have 29% female, so a strong underrepresentation. But that’s a workforce that’s across the age groups and it will change just because the undergraduate population is now 60% female and 40% male. If you went back to the 1960s it was 20% female, so there will be some natural change from that.”

He says there are some encouraging signs.

“We’re definitely seeing some good things in terms of participation rates. The number of girls doing life sciences, or sciences generally, is going up compared with boys graduating.”

Pay and gender equity requires work

Den Hollander says she has taken action at her institution to realise the potential of her female staff.

She says gender equality is a systemic problem, pointing to a pre-selection process at the last Federal Election which guaranteed less women in government.

One of just 10 female Australian Vice-Chancellors from 41, den Hollander says the ‘congratulations’ she received after a ‘surge’ of two female VC appointments reveal a way of thinking that is part of the problem. “Someone said, ‘that’s fantastic, you guys must be so happy, you’ve made it’. Ten out of 41 is not ‘making it,’” she says.

Den Hollander says much has changed at Deakin.

“We’ve had to work at reducing the pay gap. Why would our best female engineers earn less than other engineers at Deakin? Why would we think that? That’s wrong.”

She says enabling talented women to have children and maintain their career is critical.

“Our female staff need to have the children, that’s how it works in the world. One of the things we found is that’s the tipping point, that’s when they leave; at 30–35, first child or second child.”

To help them, Deakin pays for research assistants for leading female researchers.

“We pay them maternity leave but keep someone in the workplace. One of those researchers has just come back and while she was away we had someone doing her research for her.”

Ta’eed has great ideas about how to engage more females. “If we can show young women what a difference tech can make in the world, then that will be extremely important,” she says.

“There are a couple of programs teaching young people about entrepreneurialism and pairing it with tech. Lemonade Stand in Melbourne and Just Started in WA are working on programs with teenagers to find a problem they want to solve and come up with entrepreneurial ways to solve it with tech.

“I’d love to see that in schools across Australia.”

Image © CEDA