When will International Women's Day become redundant? Will this day ever become a fondly remembered practice of a past era? Not in my lifetime. Yes, women have gained much. Plenty of women have broken through the glass ceiling. But, magically, it closes over again.
Last month's women's day saw us celebrating women's achievements, exhorting greater commitment, releasing progress reports and offering thoughtful commentary. Yet gender equality has not been fully realised anywhere in the world. And it's not lack of resources or know-how that prevents us achieving it.
Picking up on the theme of this year's women's day ("be bold for change"), Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson offered thoughtful commentary on boldness and its application to gender equality in the Australian Public Service. His department's gender equality strategy contains specific targets, he says, which implies we'll be able to measure their progress. But is this success?
Back in 1991, the United States Congress passed an act that created the Glass Ceiling Commission. This commission investigated the barriers affecting a range of minorities in America. In 1995, it produced its final report about barriers faced by women and offered a range of recommendations for action, including:
- demonstrate chief executive commitment;
- include diversity in all strategic business plans and hold line managers accountable for progress;
- select, promote and retain qualified individuals;
- initiate work-life and family-friendly policies; and
- improve data collection.
Twenty-one years later, the language has changed but the actions are much the same. The current APS gender equality strategy, Balancing the Future, includes the principle of commitment: "leaders will give priority to ensuring gender equality in their agencies and will allocate resources accordingly" and "public sector leaders, managers, and supervisors will be bold in creating inclusive workplace cultures". Actions include "working innovatively to embed gender equality in employment practices" and "increasing take-up of flexible work arrangements by both men and women".
Parkinson says that, by 2019, his department will have maintained a gender balance of a minimum of 40 per cent and "we are working towards [not "we will achieve"] a 50:50 gender split within the executive cohort". Playing with percentages unhelpfully represents gender equality as a numbers game proportional to population.
I see two problems with 50:50 or similar targets (and they're usually less than 50 per cent). One is, depending on what measure you consider, estimates of what will actually happen are grim. After last year's ACT election, which resulted in 13 women elected among a total of 25 Assembly members, Fairfax Media calculated how long it would take other jurisdictions to achieve a similar 50:50 result. On present trends, it estimated, it would take another 10 federal polls to go from 32 per cent to 50 per cent. That's 2046!
For some years now, we've been told repeatedly that gender equality leads to more profitable, better-performing organisations. Yet progress remains glacially slow. Surely if men were really convinced by this argument, progress would be faster.
Second, targets keep us focused on incremental progress. We continue to celebrate each senior appointment along the road to gender equality and think we're getting somewhere. Anne Summers, in her book The Misogyny Factor, suggests we're preoccupied with progress rather than success. Evidence of progress is not evidence of success.
If gender equality means treating all humans as equally valuable, it's worth asking, what would success look like? Here are some suggestions for the APS:
The successful service:
That's just for starters.
Are you thinking these success measures are outrageous? Unrealistic? Ridiculously politically correct? If so, you'll know why progress is slow and achieving success unlikely. As former governor-general Quentin Bryce said in her women in leadership speech in 2010, some honesty would help:
"We have a good handle on the facts and rationale for change. We know we should and can do better. There are reform models we can draw on from across the globe. But I think we lack honesty in our own words and behaviours – what we say and do every day about women's participation in society. It is what we each do in our own lives and families and workplaces that ultimately determines the critical mass that moves us towards or away from change."
So long as cultural norms, entrenched beliefs and expectations, vested interests, unwillingness to take responsibility and share privileges stay firmly in place, we'll still need to celebrate International Women's Day.
Dr Ann Villiers is a career consultant at Mental Nutrition. firstname.lastname@example.org