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Gender Equality

US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, new British Prime Minister Theresa May and the “Ghostbusters” remake with a female cast suggest a sense of momentum for gender equality, according to Dr Loren Miller, Vice President Strategy and Governance, RMIT.

But she countered this positive picture by noting that Australia now has the lowest number of females in federal parliament in 20 years and a 17.3% pay gap between men and women in full time positions.

“We need a more comprehensive approach to change,” Miller told the RMIT Strategy Week session on gender equality. True sharing of family and domestic responsibilities, flexible work and career pathways and a respectful environment that includes those who don’t fit into male-dominated power cultures are key requirements.

Strategy Week - Gender Equality

“We need this not just because it is fair and we aspire for social justice,” she said. “We need it because it will make our world and our university a better, more fulfilling and productive community.”

Co-facilitator Professor Calum Drummond, DVC Research and Innovation, said RMIT is committed to gender equality in its five-year strategic plan, its women in leadership KPIs and a new VCE-endorsed gender equity plan.

There are still pressing issues in gender equality, however. Only 12% of RMIT’s STEM leaders are female; the university has its own pay equity gap that it’s working to close; there are opinions, behaviours and biases that are not ok; student enrolments still follow stereotypical gender roles; and some female graduates will earn less than male graduates from day one.

“We know that there is so much more we need to do,” he said, noting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comment that his cabinet was half female “because it’s 2015”. “We need to say ‘because it’s 2016’; we need to address these issues,” Drummond said.

Libby Lyons, Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, recalled her grandmother, Edith Lyons, talking about gender issues in the 1940s. She’d been left with 11 children and no pension when her husband, Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, died in 1939, so she went into politics and became Australia’s first woman in the House of Representatives and its first female cabinet minister.

“I’m disappointed we are still talking about gender equality in 2016, but I’m inspired by my grandmother,” Lyons said.

An important driver of change is data, and Australia has the best data in the world about workplace gender issues, Lyons said. This could be mined to get new insights and to prove that gender equality makes very good business sense.

Lyons outlined 2015 Australian statistics showing: a 19.1% pay gap on base salaries, rising to 24% for full-time earnings; only 15.4% of CEOs are women; and the proportion of women in the workforce is at its lowest for 30-54 year olds, due to family responsibilities. Even after age 54, many women are then caring for elderly relatives.

Lyons also noted that women and men are often concentrated in different industries, with women in lower paying sectors. The female-dominated healthcare sector, for example, has average full-time pay of $74,000, while the male-dominated construction industry sits at $89,000. Over the past 20 years, the workforce has become more gender segregated. Education and training, for example, now has 70.6% female staff, up 5%. Over the same period, the proportion of females in the construction industry has declined 4% to 20.2%.

“As educators, we have a lot to do,” Lyons said. “We need to encourage females to look at different career options.” She also urged more education about financial literacy for women, including university staff as well as students.

Another issue was the common assumption that men are not interested in work/life balance. Many are, Lyons said, but they are twice as likely as women to have their requests for work flexibility denied.

Dr Mark Toner, Director of Gender Matters consultancy, discussed cognitive bias. “If you have a brain, you have bias; we are all biased,” he said. “Unconscious bias is mentioned a lot but it’s a complicated subject because we are not aware of it, it’s hidden.” It causes us to make judgments without taking into account all the evidence, or not changing our views in accordance with the evidence.

This often surfaces in the way women are treated, Toner said. For example, he knew male CEOs of large companies who genuinely believe men are better than women in business. That means they tend to favour men. Toner noted that our brains are hardwired to favour “people like us” as a survival mechanism, whether it’s about gender, age or skin colour. This “in-group” bias means we also discriminate against those who are out of the group.

Toner said this was the only explanation to account for the gender disparity in business and academia. In the Top 100 listed companies, for example, the number of female CEOs and deputy CEOs has not increased in the past five years and the number of female CFOs has decreased.

Strategy Week - Gender Equality

The answer, Toner said, is education. Ten years ago, he had never worked with women in his engineering and science-based career. “I had no idea,” he said. “I just presumed women were either not interested or not good at engineering.” The two key things, he said, are to understand bias issues and understand gender issues such as women being more modest about their achievements than men.

Professor Sara Charlesworth, RMIT School of Management, outlined five gender equality issues. First, on definitions, she said equality meant having the same rights, rewards and opportunities, including decision making, while inequality was about unequal power relationships. “We need a greater sharing of that power,” she said.

Second, no organisation is an island. It is wrong to say gender inequality just reflects social mores, when organisations often lag behind the broader social context, Charlesworth said. For example, the gender stereotype of a male breadwinner and female homemaker has less currency socially now, but businesses are often structured around this outdated assumption.

Third, the view that women caring for children is the only reason for gender inequality does not stack up when you consider that within one year of graduation there’s a gender pay gap, or that the everyday sexism in most organisations is seen as amusing or trivial.

Fourth, progress on gender equity has to be multi-level and multi-pronged, Charlesworth said. “Gender inequality is in the bone marrow of many organisations,” she said. “Starting salaries or an unreflective exercise of discretion over pay rises – it just sort of happens.” What’s needed is overlapping strategies to overcome resistance to what Charlesworth calls the “gender inequality tango”: two steps forward, one step back and one step sideways.

Finally, Charlesworth said the “optics”, or what’s visible, are very important in driving gender equity. For example, female representation on panels, numbers of guest speakers and allocation of office space are important. “We need to call out gendered optics that reinforce that women are not equal,” she said. 

Christine Barsha, a recent RMIT communications graduate, talked about her role as a member of the university’s student car racing team. “People would ask me why I was working very late hours with the racing team building a car – it comes down to female empowerment and the education of young males,” she said. No one questioned her when she stepped in to a group of 70 males, aged 18 to 25, and they accepted her as an executive member of the club and listened to her advice; perhaps two years ago that would have been unheard of.

Strategy Week - Gender Equality

“I was brought up that if you have respect for yourself and respect for others, you will get some respect,” she said.

In answer to a question on how RMIT should tackle unconscious bias, Toner reiterated that it was all about education. There are more than 150 known cognitive biases, he said, so it was best to focus on dealing with the top 10 in academia and business, around promotion, career development and the like.

He said that when unconscious bias training became popular about four years ago, he was disappointed that many large organisations treated it as a tick the box exercise, arranging a half-day workshop to cleanse their staff of unconscious bias.

“All we can do is try to understand what some of the issues are with our decisions and try to mitigate them,” he said. “It’s really hard.” For example, he was more comfortable with baby boomer white men like him than, say, with a younger woman of a different ethnic background, and he had to be aware of it. This was one of the problems with men saying they recruit and promote on merit, because merit is very subjective and subject to bias.

On how to create an environment that balanced family caring needs and meaningful careers, Charlesworth said the typical response was to offer part-time employment, carers’ leave and working from home options. But organisations needed to look at the less obvious things, such as whether meaningful decisions were made when part-timers were not there. “You have to reflect and look closely at your ordinary work processes,” she said.

Lyons said this was also about challenging cultural norms in workplace presenteeism, by assessing outcomes rather than time at the desk. Flexibility is the way to change things, for men too, including men not judging other men who take options such as primary carers’ leave.

Any organisation with smart leaders knows that if they aren’t on the bus in terms of change, they won’t be competitive, Lyons said. The two key issues are flexible roles and pay equity – which then has to be monitored. A third issue is economic security for women, who retire with an average 50% less superannuation than men.

Charlesworth said change must involve the whole organisation, including the right representation of women at lower levels as well as senior levels.

Barsha said that as a very recent graduate, she’s not at a stage of her career to worry about flexibility or superannuation. She also said there is a lot of talk about women in higher levels, but everyone needed to be included. “We require normalisation of our capabilities versus our male counterparts,” she said, adding that she was often referred to as cute or charming, rather than passionate, intelligent and authoritative. “Everyone should have the same opportunity to progress through the ranks to leadership positions.”

“Financial literacy is really important,” Lyons told Barsha. “I don’t want to see you in poverty in retirement. There’s a pay gap for graduates, so it is about addressing that as soon as you enter the workforce. I hope you don’t experience that, but I fear you might.”

Taylor Mather, an RMIT mechanical engineering student, said that when she was first appointed team leader of RMIT Racing six months ago, questions were asked behind her back about whether a girl could lead the team. “Even though I’m not earning money, [gender inequality] is still there,” she said. She’s one of two females in a class of 200. “You kind of get forgotten.”

Drummond concluded the session by urging the audience to challenge cultural norms and call out unconscious bias. “Let’s not be a “gonna” university; let’s Nike it and just do it,” he said.


  • Green ArrowPositive developments in gender equality, such as Theresa May becoming UK Prime Minister, are countered by disappointing statistics on issues such as the gender pay gap and the low percentage of female CEOs.
  • Green ArrowIt’s not just about women caring for children, because the gender pay gap emerges within one year of graduation.
  • Green ArrowInequality is about unequal power relationships.
  • Green ArrowEveryone has cognitive biases. Unconscious bias is particularly difficult to address because our brains are hard-wired to favour people like us.
  • Green ArrowA more comprehensive approach is needed; multi-level, multi-pronged and with overlapping strategies.
  • Green ArrowRMIT has committed to gender equity in its new VCE-endorsed plan, but still has pressing issues to address including its own pay gap and a low percentage of female STEM leaders.
  • Green ArrowEducation is the answer, to understand bias and try to mitigate its influence on decision-making and to improve female financial literacy
  • Green ArrowKey issues are flexible roles, pay equity and challenging cultural norms on workplace presenteeism.
  • Green ArrowOptics such as equal female representation on panels are important.