Gender equality in the workplace faces a critical tipping point as people return to the office in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to former Australian Prime Minister, the Hon Julia Gillard AC.
Speaking at the 2021 ANZ Finance & Treasury Forum, Gillard – the 27th Prime Minister of Australia and inaugural chair of the Global Institute of Women's Leadership – said pandemic-era technology would continue to reshape workplaces, inevitably impacting how merit is assessed, and therefore how careers develop.
This could have a disproportionate impact on women, who statistically still bear the load of domestic and caring labour and could spend less time in the office as a result, she said.
“This is an era, I think, where we could turbocharge gender equality at work, or we could make some pretty big errors,” Ms Gillard said. “I think in most businesses, which of those two futures we're going to realise is being decided right now.”
“The optimist in me says we will find a way of marrying this technology with in-person attendance, which makes work and family life much more manageable.”
Gillard spoke virtually at the conference in a conversation with Richard Dawson, head of ANZ for the UK and Europe. Dawson said the pandemic had shone a light on the gender gap, particularly as many women take on additional roles outside their employment. He thinks part of the solution may be reassessing what flexibility at work really means.
“I think people feel flexibility is the number of days you'll be in the office, or number of days you'll be at home,” he said. “But actually within a day flexibility is important as well.
“I think we shouldn't be too rigid on the amount of work in a day because I think output is really where we should be focussed on. Often it's been input we've looked at in the past.”
Gillard said businesses needed to be careful their approach to flexible attendance did not unintentionally advantage those who work in an office over those who work remotely.
“What concerns me is we will wake up in five years’ time, and men have disproportionately chosen to go into work, while women have disproportionately chosen to stay home because of their caring responsibilities,” she said. “The men will be visible, while the women will be less visible.”
“So come mentoring time, opportunity time, and promotion time, it will be the men who are remembered and who stand out.”
“If that's where we end up, I think gender equality statistics at work could go backwards.”
Gillard said the challenge for businesses was to ensure clarity around merit in their organisations, warning it “can’t default to presenteeism".
“The evidence tells us the clearer and more objective merit definitions are, the more gender blind they are,” she said. “And the more subjective they are, the more unconscious bias comes into play.”
“Getting that correct right now, thinking about what merit is at work, and how it will be fairly measured across workers who were both in and outside the office environment – that is key if we're going to put together this future in a way that enhances gender equality.”
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Gillard said while much progress had been made at the hiring level when it comes to gender equality, those gains are still breaking down at the midpoint of women’s careers – even before the pandemic.
“As [women] track up the hierarchy, particularly in the mid-range of the hierarchy – which, age-range wise, would tend to correlate with the family formation stage – [businesses] see a lot of women falling away,” she said.
“That means when they're trying to appoint to the next bit of the hierarchy, they don't have as many women at the starting gates because they haven't made it through the middle bit.”
The solution to that issue may differ depending on the specific company and sector it operates in, Gillard said. What’s consistently important though is tracking the impact of those solutions – and ensuring they work. Because a lot of high-profile and expensive ideas simply don’t.
“We see businesses investing millions and millions of dollars in women's empowerment initiatives that the evidence tells us are not effective for change,” she said. “And that is a crying shame, given how important this task is.”
“My message to businesses would be, gather the data [and] be very precise about the data,” she said. “And then if you do a deep dive into the data that will help you see the obstacles that are in the way of women's progression.”
Gillard said it was critical the conversation around gender equality actively involved men.
“This needs to be a discussion that everybody's seen in because ultimately, gender equality is in everybody's interests, not simply in the interests of women,” she said.
Men can play a unique role in the solution due to the status quo which gives them disproportionate power – the same status quo groups like Gillard’s Global Institute of Women's Leadership are trying to change.
“If men are not leaning into this, we’re not going to get the change we need to see,” she said. “Men have a lot of power in their hands to put a spotlight on gender equality.”
“And my message to [men] would be: please use it.”
Gillard also spoke of her optimism toward the post-pandemic future, her work in the education space and how her career purpose has developed since she left politics.
The Hon. Julia Gillard AC appears by arrangement with Michael Cassel, Group, represented by Saxton Speakers Bureau.
ANZ will be sharing more from her insightful Q&A over coming weeks.
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