Disruptive public policy, women in leadership and Australia's journey for equality

Natasha attended the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women 61st Session where she represented The University of Sydney. She is currently studying a Bachelor of International and Global Studies.


Collaboration between civil society, public and private sectors, will produce policy that effectively targets structural barriers to women in leadership. Achieving substantive equality in both institutional settings and broader society requires not only organisational change, but cultural change. These are the central claims of this research paper.

Encouraging women into leadership positions and to participate in decision-making forums is critical to the meaningful empowerment of women. In the modern workforce of market competition and the persistently tricky work/life balance, there is significant potential for organisations to address structural barriers such as parental leave and unconscious bias in recruitment and career progression.

This paper contends that by collaborating across sectors, we are able to produce more nuanced and effective workplace policy. Policy recommendations that are made include; researching the key barriers to achieving leadership for women and general attitudes to women in work, the creation of a Women in Leadership Working Group to be facilitated by the Office for Women or Workplace Gender Equality Agency, establishing a monitoring and evaluation framework for those who have made commitments to this working group to increase women in leadership and lastly, the creation of a formal forum or expert advisory panel to provide advice on Australia’s influence on women and work abroad. The paper will conclude by explaining that it is important that women are in leadership positions as it changes what people think is possible for themselves and for their children.


1. Conduct a survey across the public, private and civil society sectors asking the same questions to determine key barriers to achieving leadership and attitudes to women in work.

a. This is an opportunity for Australian women to identify the issues that they face and consult with institutions on their personal experience. Whilst companies such as KPMG conduct internal studies, the experience of a woman in a professional service company may be different to someone working for the Department of Defence or the Red Cross. Data from a large scale survey may produce trends that have not been observed due to the previously internal nature of gender equality research.

2. Create a working group chaired by the Office for Women or the Workplace Gender Equality Agency that involves representatives from government departments, the ASX 200 companies and civil society groups.

a. Similar to the Australian National Action Plan’s working group, a ‘Women in Leadership Working Group’ that met annually with a sub-committee meeting bi- annually would allow for the articulation of a cross sector commitment or agenda for women in leadership and the discussion of issues such as paid parental leave and unconscious bias in recruitment and in talent management.

b. An area of discussion that must be emphasised is combining work and family in Australia’s economy. The working group would share best practice and information regarding flexible work arrangements, paid parental leave and the retention of employees who are primary care givers.

c. Another area of discussion includes unconscious bias in recruitment practices and methods by which it is possible to eliminate this bias—such as blind recruitment.

3. Establish a monitoring and evaluation framework that allows for institutions to report annually on the progress that has been made towards encouraging women into leadership positions.

a. Crucially, this allows for the agenda or commitment of the working group to become outcomes.

4. Create a forum for discussion between specific government departments such as DFAT and Defence, the ACMC, and civil society organisations such as ACFID that are involved in Australia’s foreign assistance programs.

a. This forum would seek to ‘mainstream’ gender throughout their policies. An expert advisory panel who advised Australian publican servants on how they influence women and work in the national interest would safeguard against indirect discriminatory practices and allow for a collaborative approach to promoting women in leadership.

b. Consider DFAT’s three pronged approach as espoused in the 2015 strategy. Mentoring/ networking strategies. Putting women in touch with Australian leaders and have them mentored or informally supported.


In 1995 the Fourth World Conference on Women produced the Beijing Platform for Action which establishing the importance of ‘women in power and in decision making’ (UN Women 2016). The two main strategic objectives stipulated that we ought to ‘take measures to ensure women’s equal access to and full participation in power structures and decision-making’ and ‘increase women’s capacity to participate in decision making and leadership’ (UN Women 2016). However, how does women’s equal participation in leadership and decision making effect their economic empowerment in the changing world of work?

Including women in leadership positions ensures that women’s interests are acknowledged, it encourages other women to pursue seniority in their organisations and the it catalyses a process of cultural change creating an environment that is more inclusive of diversity. The ‘fuzziness’ of empowerment as a concept can create challenges when we try and measure the extent to which someone has been empowered—a task that is crucial for policy evaluation (Kabeer 1999). Kabeer explains that women’s economic empowerment is a process of change by which ‘those who have been denied the ability to make strategic life choices acquire such an ability’ (1999, p.435). This ability to choose requires that women are able to have access to sufficient resources (material, human and social), agency—such as the ability to participate in decision making, and to be able to achieve their personal goals (Kabeer 1999, p.435). The following research will provide a framework for the subsequent policy solutions that seek to address the significant under- representation and lack of value attributed to women leaders in Australia’s workforce.

What is unique about this research is that it introduces a method of collaboration. As will be demonstrated, the process of change is far more effective when it moves from focusing on an individual or a company to transforming entire sectors of society. The collaboration between the public and private sectors and civil society ensures synergies between the feminist agenda (that seeks social justice for women) and the sustainable development agendai. The challenge is to produce policy that empowers women into leadership and in decision making and addresses the inherent inequalities of the gendered global economy (Bexell 2012, p.2). Therefore we need to focus on the structures of work that fundamentally disadvantage women as soon as they enter the force.

State of Affairs, the Numbers of Women in Leadership

In 2011 women represented 57% of the public sector yet only 35.3% of government board appointments (AHRC 2011). Women account for over half of all academic staff and make up 42% of senior lecturing staff, yet only 27% of female staff hold positions above senior lecturer (Australian Human Rights Commission 2016). 61.4% of all law graduates are female, however women only hold 22% of senior positions in law firms (as partners, principles, directors or in sole practice) and represent 16% of the bench in the Federal Court (AHRC 2016). Also in 2011, only 13.4% of women held directorships on ASX 200 boards (Australian Institute of Company Directors 2016). As of June 2016 this figure has risen by 10% to 23.4% (Australian Institute of Company Directors 2016). Hence in five years progress has been made in the corporate sector. The Australian government’s commitment to forty percent representation of women on government boards (the Gender Diversity Target) has also seen progress from 35.3% in 2011 to 39.1% as of 2015, even if these positions are clustered in departments that evidence high participation of women such as social services, education and health (DPMC 2015). Therefore, achieving leadership in male dominated sectors remains a challenge for Australian women.

Two of the key structural barriers that prevent women from entering leadership positions are paid leave and unconscious bias in recruitment and career progression. The following will assess these two areas.

Australian Paid Parental Leave Policy

Several key promotions for leadership and seniority occur at popular childbearing ages (Slaughter 2015). The rigidity of most parental leave systems are such that it is near impossible for anyone other than the mother of the child to claim substantive leave. In 1974 Sweden became the first country to grant paid parental as an entitlement that both parents could access (UN Women Progress Report 2016, p. 87). Over the next fifteen years, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Denmark followed suit (Un Women Progress Report 2016, p. 87). Unlike the Scandinavian nations, Australia takes a ‘maternalist’ approach to parental leave policy with most sectors providing more paid parental leave for the mother of a newborn or the adopting parent of a child (Department of Human Services 2016).

In Australia, an employee who meets the eligibility criteria are entitled to up to eighteen weeks ‘parental leave pay’ from the Australian government and may also be paid parental leave from their employer too (though the amount and length of time paid is dependent upon individual contract) (Fair Work Ombudsman 2016). This paid leave is initially for the mother but may be transferred to the father in certain instances (Leavenetwork.org 2016). The Fair Work Act 2009 allows for 12 months unpaid leave with job security ‘for each eligible working parent (in a permanent position) with responsibility for care of a child at the time of a birth or adoption, with a limit of 24 months leave for each couple’ (Whitehouse, Baird, Brennan and Baxter, 2016). The gender neutral terminology was adopted in 1990 in reference to leave entitlements couple’ (Whitehouse, Baird, Brennan and Baxter, 2016). Except for ‘Dad or Partner Pay’ which gives two weeks paid leave at the national minimum wage and payments are made directly to the employee (Fair Work Ombudsman 2016). Employer paid parental leave is available to near to 50% of mothers with varying durations according to industry and size of company couple’ (Whitehouse, Baird, Brennan and Baxter, 2016)

Australia’s policy as it stands ensures that traditional gender roles remain firmly embedded as the expectation and norm for Australian women, making the aspiration of a powerful career not only unusual but stigmatised. If a father were to become the primary caregiver, unless under a specific arrangement with their employer or are in a unique financial position, are only able to claim two weeks paid leave. Shared parental leave policies may not automatically reverse or transform gender roles concerning care giving as it is common mothers to remain primary caregivers. However, the policies work to slowly change perceptions as more men become primary caregivers and create a culture that is more accepting of fathers as carers and mothers as breadwinners. Therefore, a collaborative and information sharing approach across the three sectors may provide opportunities that allow women and men to tailor their caregiving arrangements so that more women are able to pursue seniority in their industry. Moreover it may change the current political narrative on making paid leave ‘fairer’ to how we could finance ‘shared leave’.

Numerical parity whilst vital to achieving equality in the workforce is not the entire picture. Having a critical mass of women in the workforce may produce a more ‘gender sensitive’ and inclusive culture, however it does not ensure that a gender equality agenda will be adopted by that company, government department or civil society organisation. Moreover, it does not guarantee that structural barriers such as unconscious bias in recruitment and promotion and parental leave will be addressed. The following research demonstrates the state of Australia’s efforts to expose unconscious bias in the workplace.

Unconscious Bias in Recruitment and Promotion

A society that practices collaboration across sectors will prove to be more effective in exposing unconscious bias. The nature of unconscious bias is that it is a silent phenomenon, and hence, as Australian workplaces must develop a language and a series of practices or approaches towards recruitment and progression to uncover bias and ensure that opportunity for employment and promotion are equally available to all people. The recently released Everyday Sexism report indicates that of the young Australian women surveyed-between the ages of sixteen and nineteen-one third believe it would be easier to get their dream job if they were male (Plan and One Watch 2016).

Columbia University’s Business School Professor Frank Flynn and New York University professor Cameron Anderson conducted a study that has become infamous in explaining hidden or unconscious bias (2003). Utilising the case study of successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist Heidi Roizen, the researchers gave Heidi’s story to class of students (McGinn and Tempest, 2000). However, only half the class received Heidi’s story, the other half read about ‘Howard’ (Sandberg 2013). The two professors then polled the students of their impressions of Heidi and Howard revealing that while the two were ranked equally regarding competency, Howard was more likely to be someone the students wanted to work with and Heidi was seen as ‘selfish’ (Sandberg and Scovell 2013, p. 40). Therefore, as was proven by this study, and by many others (Hellman and Okimoto 2007), success and affability are associated with men whereas ambition is negatively correlate with women (Sandberg and Scovell 2013, p. 40).

How then are organisations able to avoid the deeply entrenched cultural narratives that affect our recruitment and promotion practices? A solution that has been adopted by certain organisations such as Google and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is blind recruitment (Crickey 2016). The ABS, for example, wished to increase the number of women in senior leadership positions and had nineteen open (Calixto 2016). After a process of blind recruitment fifteen women were hired for these positions, where previously only 21% of these roles had been filled by women (SBS 2016). Blind recruitment also succeeds in preventing other forms of discrimination such as based on ethnicity, reducing the intersections of discrimination and disadvantage. Whilst blind recruitment tends to extend only as far as the first few stages of selection, it is proving to be incredibly effective in preventing initial discrimination of candidates based on factors such as gender and ethnicity. If organisations across Australia were to develop a cohesive strategy that supported blind recruitment the likelihood of women accessing opportunities on a more equal playing field would certainly increase.


To conclude, reluctance to progress the case for promoting women into leadership and to affirm the value of women in leadership, works to further embed gender norms surrounding the role of women in a working society (AHRC 2016). Therefore, the policy recommendations seek to provide cross-sector opportunities to challenge the disempowerment of women at the systemic level and therefore provide a more sustainable solution to women in leadership in the changing world of work.


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An example of this partnership is evident in Australia’s implementation of the National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security or an international partnership between UN Global Compact and private corporations in the form of the Women’s