The revolution for gender equality starts with quotas

At 50/50 Vision, a June Walkley Talk moderated by PwC’s Megan Brownlow, panellists Jane Caro, Jan Fran, Angela Priestley and Alison Rice laid down hot fire on what it’s going to take to get gender equality in Australian workplaces.

Left to right: Megan Brownlow, Jan Fran, Jane Caro, Angela Priestley and Alison Rice.

“Australia has one of the most gender-segregated workplaces in the world,” said the inimitable Jane Caro, speaking before a small, enthusiastic (and mostly female) congregation at the State Library of NSW. “We have to do something about this sh*t. We really do.”

Over the course of the hour’s discussion, many solutions were put forward by Caro and the rest of the eloquent panel, comprising of Jan Fran (host of SBS’s The Feed), Angela Priestley (Women’s Agenda editorial director) and Alison Rice (Allure Media group publisher), with PwC’s Megan Brownlow moderating. But none was reiterated so often, so compellingly, nor so emphatically, as the much-maligned use of quotas.

“There’s nothing new about quotas,” said Caro. Barnaby Joyce, she pointed out, quite drily, was awarded deputy leader because of a quota. Did we have any huffing from the public about that? We did not.

Most boards have quotas as well, she continued, to ensure equal representation across categories like state divisions. Yet when the conversation turns to quotas for gender equality, the rules abruptly change. Concerns are raised about women supposedly getting an easy leg-up into positions without merit.

This pernicious double standard seeks to delegitimise one of the most effective tools for progress at our disposal, Caro argued.

“If we don’t have a hard quota — that it isn’t mandated, that doesn’t have consequences for not reaching it — then nothing will change,” said Caro. “People will say, ‘Yes, this is a really good idea, we’ll get around to that.’ I’ve been listening to this for 35 years.”

Even if we have attitude change, the panel agreed — and at the crest of the #metoo movement, we might just be in the midst of a shift — we still need a no-nonsense mechanism to catalyse behavioural change. Without one, unlearning a centuries-old habit which enshrines men as de facto leaders isn’t going to happen any time soon.

Quotas weren’t just championed as a means to get equal representation within media organisations either. As the panel discussed, they can also be leveraged to correct other inequalities – like the damning paucity of women’s voices quoted as authorities in the mainstream media. Priestley referenced a 2016 study by the Women’s Leadership Institute Australia (WLIA), which revealed that out of 6000 articles reviewed, just one in five quoted females.

“That figure drops again when you look at the business press, when you look at the financial press,” said Priestley. “The female sources that are quoted tend to be in health and education, where we don’t dominate but head up towards the 40% mark.

“We have a real problem there,” she continued. “We’re not seeing the female role models. Even if they exist, we’re not putting them in front of young girls. It’s also affecting our democracy — if we’re not having diverse media, we’re not seeing a diverse range of opinions quoted and seen.”

Jan Fran — who, like Jane Caro, is up this year as a finalist for the 2018 Women’s Leadership in Media Award — took up the beat to smash out an argument on how we can get more female experts quoted as experts in the Australian press. (If you’re curious, her demeanour and persuasive panache is the same in the flesh as it is on The Feed.)

“If you’re an organisation, why don’t we think a little bit harder and say ‘Is there a woman who would be able to fulfil that spokesperson role just as easily?’ So, if someone from the press calls, she’s the first person there,” said Fran. “And then they have her on speed dial, and the next time they call, it’ll be infinitely easier.”

Media organisations have to lift their game too, she said. Yes: journalists are incredibly time-poor and walloped by deadlines on all sides. Hunting down voices beyond those already on-hande obvious — that means more work.

“But we’ve got to develop a culture in our organisations where it’s ‘Just do it’. Editors need to say, ‘I’m going to allow you a space of half an hour, because now you’ve done it, you’ve done it’.”

“And that’s going to be a circuit breaker for that female source too,” said Priestley — who confessed that, when she was a young business writer, she herself had been largely oblivious to the problem. “If they get quoted once, or if they speak on a panel at one event, they show up on Google — and now other journalists are going to use them as a go-to source.”

Today, Priestley estimates she has interviewed over 1000 women in her career. She also did the incredible (to some, the near insane), by founding her own company after she had just given birth to her second child.

Which brings us to the third and final case for quotas put forward by the 50/50 Vision panel that evening: demanding quotas for parental leave.

It is a topic close to Alison Rice’s heart. As she shared with the audience, Rice had recently had two women from her team at Allure Media go on maternity leave for 12–18 months.

“That was my first go at that,” she said. Aside from the kafkaesque challenges in trying to hunt down all the information around leave policy that the women needed and were owed, Rice was dismayed to see just how distressed her employees were feeling.

“People go into the role and think ‘F*ck. I’ve got this body clock thing, and a husband who really wants a baby. I’ve got to do this, because he can’t.’ So there’s this real anxiety around pay, and ‘Will my job still be there?’. It appalled me when I first faced this.”

Rice found herself caught between assuring new mothers that they weren’t “burdening the business” by extending their leave, and her leadership peers that these women can be trusted when they say they will return.

As Fran observed, the story is completely different when a man becomes a new father. As is the case at Allure Media, the SBS team at The Feed are equally represented by gender, with most of them under forty. But while “literally anyone who is able to breed and has sperm” has become a parent, not one woman has chosen to do so.

The risks of motherhood as a working woman are essentially bringing undue conflict to one of the most important life choices a person can make, argued Rice. These risks are both acutely perceived and very real — Priestley noted the number of women who are still being made redundant before and after maternity leave, and the cumulative, disabling effects on a woman’s career once she becomes a mother.

“So many panels that I’ve done, and so many discussions around ‘How do we get more women into the workforce?’ just omit the second half of that equation and the other side of that coin,” said Fran. “Which is: ‘How do we get more men in the home?’”

“You’re never going to have full participation of women in the workforce if you don’t have equal participation of men in the home…I feel we have got to a point where we are quite close to hitting the wall in terms of the discussion of how we get more women in the workplace. It can’t happen if men don’t go the other way.”

The lack of incentives for men to take parental leave hurts the whole family, too.

“While we’re on mat leave, we learn how to look after the house, the kid,” said Priestley. “Our partners don’t get that chance. There’s all this learned behaviour that happens when you take that period off.”

She praised Medibank’s new Family Flex policy introduced in March, which offers 14 paid weeks for any caregiver — mothers, fathers, primary carers or secondary carers — as a game-changer. “That’s just where we need to head in terms of encouraging more men to take that leave.”

Yet Caro was having none of ‘encouraging’.

“Make them!” she exclaimed. “Let’s do quotas for men to take parental leave…Fathers should have to take a percentage of parental leave, and if they don’t take it, the leave is lost.”

The panel concurred. Enough waiting around for behaviours to change, they said. Let’s bake parental leave for both men and woman into policy. Sweden is doing it — why must it always be them who get the world trophy for being socially progressive?

Ethics aside, doing so just makes good hard sense, they said. It enables men to take leave without being seen by their boss as a disinterested slacker. It lets fathers learn how to be fathers in the full richness of the word. And it emancipates women from the career stress and burden of being sole caregivers. It brings about a deeply significant change in how children are raised, how partners relate and share work in the home, and how individuals can equally negotiate their working lives.

“There could be very good financial incentives in that case as well,” Priestley dreamed, her voice throbbing with the sound of a revolutionary idea. “To really make it financially stupid for men not to take parental leave.”

And if anyone complains that quotas based on gender aren’t fair?

“Just remind them of the 100% quota that existed for men for 2000 years in every single position of power and in education too,” said Caro coolly.

“We could be saying 100% for the next 2000 years. But we won’t. Because we’re nice.”


50/50 Vision was presented in partnership with the State Library of NSW. You can listen to previous talks via the Walkley Talks podcast channel.

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