Australian women today can follow any career path they choose, but social norms and organisational structures do not aid their success. That was the key message from the Women In Business 20:20 panel discussion held this week to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Telstra Business Women’s awards.
The panel was moderated by Melissa Doyle and featured leading Australian women, including Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick and CEO of the Sydney Opera House Louise Herron.
“Women can do anything in Australia now, there is no job that isn’t open to them,” said Broderick, citing the first female Prime Minister and first female head of Royal Military College Duntroon as examples.
A doubling of the number of women on Boards in recent years (from 8 to 18 per cent), a reduction in the rate of sexual harassment of women in workplaces, and the introduction of the national paid parental leave scheme, were also listed as ways Australia has progressed.
“Occasionally I sit there and I think, are we making any progress? It all seems so glacial. But when I look back over a 20 year period, we’ve come a long way,” said Broderick.
Women have also come a long way in fostering a culture of support, not competitiveness, in the workplace, according to Louise Herron. “If I think back to 20 years ago, it felt like I was fighting against other women. Now I feel like I’m fighting the field, not the women,” said Herron.
Jodie Fox, co-founder of the online design-your-own-shoes retailer Birds of Prey, feels there are more opportunities than ever for women to start a business. However, current structures make it difficult for female-led startups to grow from small to medium sized businesses and beyond.
“Recently I was speaking to another female co-founder. She’d been to 50 meetings to raise capital for her business, and in all of those meetings, she only met one female,” said Fox.
Broderick has a name for this sort of embedded structural inequality in business – gender asbestos.
“In terms of overt discrimination, we don’t see it so much. What we’re seeing now is gender asbestos – it’s built into the walls, the floors, the ceilings, the structures and practices of organisations. There is something that is reproducing disadvantage for women, but because we can’t touch it, it’s difficult to solve,” said Broderick.
Another hidden form of inequality needing to be tackled is the gender pay gap, according to Rhonda Brighton-Hall, the Executive General Manager of Organisational Development at the Commonwealth Bank.
“If there is a gap in pay between two people doing the same job, it needs to be rectified. The fact that as a society we put up with this inequality is quite extraordinary. We have to look the issue in the eye and not be okay with it,” said Brighton-Hall.
When asked what changes they would like to see to tackle the challenges of workplace gender gap faced by women in business, the panelists were not short on ideas.