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Valuing the diversity of women

By Nareen Young - posted Thursday, 19 August 2010

Diversity Council Australia (DCA) does not support tokenism in any form. This is usually divisive and will inevitably fail to achieve not only its initial objective but may even set things back for the problem it was intended to address. But tokenism should not be confused with the term “totemic feminism” which we take to mean special programs to pave the way for women to enter leadership positions in our workplaces. Any suggestion to abandon measures to redress inequity would stagger any person focused on harnessing the talents of people to maximise productivity.

DCA is the independent, not-for-profit diversity advisor to business in Australia. We were established by Australian business more than 25 years ago to demonstrate the business community's commitment to self-regulation in the area of equal opportunity for women.

And the key words here are “25 years ago”.


Yet, in those 25 years, there's been very little movement in the levels of women in leadership positions, despite all the best efforts of the many women who've made the choice to work from within for change, as we do at DCA.

At present less than 10 per cent of board members of the top 200 listed companies are women. This persistent under-utilisation of women in the workforce is bad for employers and bad for the economy, costing the country in growth and competitiveness.

We don't have any forms of intervention in Australia that enforce quotas, and some argue this is precisely why there's been so little movement by comparison with outcomes in other economic centres worldwide. And that’s why new forms of intervention are being considered today.

We think the time for argument about improving representation of women in leadership positions is well and truly over and it can only be taking place at the fringe, if mainstream politics and business in Australia are any guide.

The efforts of the ASX Corporate Governance Council and the Australian Institute of Company Directors to encourage companies to increase women on boards are typical of business community activities right now aimed at making change and leveling the playing field. Business and workplace leaders understand what the fringe doesn't - that equal representation for women in leadership isn't a marginal issue. On the contrary, it is the most mainstream of community issues.

In terms of politics, an important tool to increase the participation of women at work, paid parental leave, is a key policy plank for all major parties and one Australians should consider when deciding who to vote for in the upcoming federal election.


So we're not going to abandon leveling the playing field. Instead, we will continue to make efforts to embed it more thoroughly and in a way that achieves measurable outcomes. We've recognised, as have businesses and the employment relations community, that the change has not and will not happen organically or through the passage of time.

So what does leveling the playing field mean? It means changing business and workplace culture to recognise that women's working patterns over the lifecycle are different to men's but equally valid. It means valuing the contributions of those who need to balance their work and family through flexible working arrangements alongside those who are able to commit to full time work. It means tackling the persistent gaps between men’s and women’s earnings. It means maintaining a career ladder through the first pregnancy, second pregnancy and beyond. It also means not making assumptions that a woman can't take an offshore position, won't travel because of her kids or isn't “tough” enough to do the job. Whatever prejudices and barriers one would never dream of invoking for men, the same should be true of women.

And then there's the concept of valuing the diversity of women; their unique individual talents, skills, management styles and leadership approaches. A diverse leadership team will produce better decision-making.

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About the Author

Nareen Young is the CEO of the Diversity Council Australia.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Nareen Young

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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