Australian and New Zealand organisations can learn from each other in building gender-equal workplaces, says expert

Ahead of her visit to New Zealand this week, Lisa Annese, chief executive of Diversity Council Australia, says the single biggest diversity and inclusion issue currently needing attention in Australian workplaces is gender inequality.

"And that's not because it's the most important, because women aren't a minority group," she says. "The very fact that gender is such an issue shows you how tough it is to do properly. To do it properly, you need to create a lot of culture change within organisations as opposed to just having a goal or an ambition."

Annese thinks Australia's gender issues compare similarly to those of New Zealand in the corporate sector, "although you have a very progressive prime minister in the form of Jacinda Ardern that I think most Australian women really admire. I think we often feel that New Zealand can be very progressive in comparison to Australia. It seems easier to shift attitudes in New Zealand, so I would say that we can learn a little bit from the work that you're doing in New Zealand."

Under Ardern's leadership, New Zealand's paid parental leave entitlement has increased to 22 weeks and will rise further to 26 weeks next July, whereas Australia's entitlement has remained at 18 weeks since its introduction in 2011. Annese says New Zealand moving to 26 weeks is much more appropriate than Australia's 18 weeks.

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"You're approaching what they're doing in northern Europe, and that support of families is wonderful."

But she notes that many corporate organisations in Australia go above and beyond the government entitlement. "Another move now is that some top corporates are having shared care as a model of parental leave rather than having primary carers and secondary carers, because the implications will always marginalise men at home and if we know anything about gender equity in the workplace, it's that we need to engage men more outside the workplace."

Gender equality issues facing Australian women are "the same old, same old", says Annese.

"It's all sorts of things. It's the fact that leadership is still defined with a view that men have to be leaders, not explicitly but implicitly in the way we value leadership. I think that's one very significant area. I think also there are barriers when women take breaks in length of service or indeed if they want to work in a flexible way when they have families and are caring for children or elderly relatives."

Annese believes there are mindsets in Australian workplaces that are hard to shift, one being "appointing on merit".

"Merit is perceived to be in the eyes of the beholder and if the leadership is beholding themselves as to what merit looks like, then it looks like them." She points to Australian organisation "Male Champions of Change", made up of senior leaders in business, government, education and community, which says that although appointing on merit sounds fair, it is often used to mask a variety of biases that prevent the progress of women.

"It also has to be said," says Annese, "that the way the economy is structured in Australia, and in New Zealand and most Western democracies, means women still find themselves in traditional gender-stereotypical careers. In business, the path to the C-suite is often not through [the female-dominated areas of] HR or marketing or comms, it's through a line area or engineering or sales, so I think there are other more systemic issues that are at play."

Diversity Works NZ has recently focused on 'men as allies' and Annese says Australia is also doing work in that area. "Male Champions of Change is probably the most obvious one. But also the idea of sponsorship, which is a bit like an ally in that it works better than a mentor because it's getting men to use their power to facilitate the engagement of women. But I like the idea of allies, especially around the area of bullying and harassment in the workplace.

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"Male bystanders who become involved and act as allies are actually much more able to call out bad behaviour and get an outcome than women are themselves."

Diversity Council Australia is about to release new research on the economics of the gender pay gap, an upgrade of previous work quantifying the components of the pay gap. "This time we've gone a bit further and we've looked at some of the key policy drivers that could help close the gap," says Annese.

"We know the gender pay gap is made up of things like breaks in length of service, gender segregation, occupational segregation and superannuation, but also a lot of it is just blatant sexual harassment and discrimination."

The council has also done some work this year that enabled them to identify the "caring component" — how much of the pay gap is due to caring and housework. "And we've done a lot of work around the intersectionality of gender in other diversity dimensions like culture, because we have to appreciate that women with culturally diverse backgrounds face greater challenges to accessing equity than others.

"We also did some sexual harassment mythbusters on International Women's Day. For example, you might hear people say, 'it's all political correctness gone mad', and you know that's not right and you know you should say something but you don't know quite what to say. So we've put a pack together which provides all the evidence as to why you should reject a statement like that."

Annese believes Australian and New Zealand organisations can learn from each other in building gender-equal workplaces. "Even if you're struggling with the same issues, you could have organisations in particular sectors who are able to achieve more success due to a specific initiative. It does help everybody when organisations share what they're doing."

She is looking forward to speaking to New Zealand audiences at two breakfast events this week, meeting local D&I experts, and on Wednesday attending Diversity Works NZ's annual gala dinner and awards.