How do workplace rituals affect diversity and inclusion?

By Linda Peach and Heidi Sundin

‘Culture’ is, in simple terms, ‘the way we do things around here’.  In workplaces, it means the ways that people develop and maintain relationships with their colleagues, how work is organised, who makes things happen, and how things happen.  Workplace culture includes the way that colleagues socialise, how and when meetings happen, and the rituals that go with being a part of a culture.  Rituals can include after work drinks, weekend outings, end of year functions and the ways that people are welcomed and farewelled.

The culture in a workplace can create a strong bond between people and it can equally strongly exclude people from the workplace.  For this reason, culture is like a centrifugal force that keeps workplaces moving as a cohesive unit, and it can make or break efforts to improve diversity and inclusion, including gender equality.  When people feel excluded in a working environment, it is often because they don’t meet the cultural expectations of people in the workplace, or are unable or unwilling to take part in workplace rituals that support the culture.

But our rituals are fun! Surely everybody should just make an effort to fit in?

Workplace rituals can be inclusive like “casual Friday” or morning teas to celebrate milestones or to welcome people to the team.  They can also be exclusive like after work drinks, golf games on the weekend, breakfast events, go-karting, car racing or paintballing.  Rituals like these automatically exclude anyone who is generally unavailable for evenings out, early morning events or weekend outings (parents and others with caring responsibilities).  They can also exclude some people with a disability and may not take into account religious or lifestyle preferences (e.g., no alcohol or objections to some types of entertainment). Below are a couple of hypothetical examples.

Ahmed and his wife, Raziya, recently immigrated to Sydney and Ahmed quickly secured employment as a structural engineer with a large organisation.  He and Raziya have no friends or family in Sydney and have been hoping to make some social connections through Ahmed’s work.  They both love living in Sydney and are slowly getting used to the cultural differences that confront them every day.  Ahmed has been disappointed to find that most of his work is done on client sites and he rarely gets to meet and talk with the people who work in his own company.  He knows that a number of his colleagues meet up at a pub near the head office after work on Friday nights, but he is unable to go because his religious preferences preclude him from drinking alcohol and he doesn’t enjoy being around people who are drinking. He wishes they would meet somewhere else like a restaurant to have a meal and talk, but it seems the visits to the pub are very ritualised and changing them would be difficult.

Mary has been the Head of Customer Relations at this company for 10 years.  She has two children aged 4 and 7 and her husband, Jim, has a disability which he acquired in a motorbike accident five years ago.  He is unable to drive and works from home most days.  He earns quite well but Mary’s executive salary is the mainstay of their family finances.  Mary loves her job and under her leadership her department has consistently performed beyond expectations.

Accommodating Jim’s disability required modifications to the house and to afford those in a house large enough for a family, they moved to the Blue Mountains four years ago.  Mary commutes for 90 minutes each way to go to work.  She has flexible working arrangements and also works from home one day a week.  Mary’s mornings are tightly scheduled with children needing to be dropped off at pre-school (earliest time is 7 am) and at primary school (earliest time is 8 am).  Mary catches her train at 8.30, working on the train and arriving in the office by 10 am most days. Mary and Jim employ a part-time nanny who collects the children in the afternoon, takes them home and supervises their homework and then prepares dinner for the family before leaving at 7 pm.  Mary is usually home by 8 pm.

Once a quarter, Mary’s boss – the Vice President of Business Services – takes his senior leadership team out to dinner.  He chooses an expensive restaurant and the team shares news about their departments and discusses ideas and developments.  It’s the only opportunity each leader has to showcase the good work each of their teams does and to influence the VP.  Mary is excluded from this event because her caring commitments mean that she can’t attend evening functions.  She has suggested that it be changed to a weekday lunch, but the VP does not want to take people out of the office when they should be working.

How can workplace rituals be fun and inclusive?

Like most things that promote gender equality, diversity and inclusion, there is no simple answer to this question.  If the majority of people enjoy going for a drink at the pub and nothing in their own cultural or caring landscapes makes it difficult for them to indulge that preference, then asking them to change this ritual to accommodate a few people who do have difficulty with it is unlikely to be well-received.  What leaders can do, however, is deliberately create other opportunities to include people in informal networking events who might not be able to attend the ritualised events.  This might be a lunchtime gathering over food.  Morning teas and afternoon teas are often good opportunities for people to talk and network.  The challenge is in making them casual and informal enough to encourage conversation.

Reviewing workplace rituals is also an opportunity to look carefully at what is considered ‘fun’ in a workplace culture.  Historically, ‘fun’ at work has sometimes involved demeaning behaviour towards groups of people, particularly women, and that is a cultural norm that many organisations are trying hard to change.

Some organisations are no longer serving alcohol at company functions to reduce the possibility that inappropriate behaviour might see them embroiled in legal action or their reputation damaged.  Other organisations have implemented a policy that all important meetings must start and finish between 10 am and 4 pm to ensure that people with caring commitments and those who work flexibly can attend.

Workplace culture and workplace rituals can drive a healthy, inclusive and respectful culture, or they can create an environment where people can be excluded from full participation in the life of the organisation because they do not fit with cultural expectations embedded in rituals like drinks after work or meetings held after hours in nice restaurants.  Organisations can adjust their culture and rituals by adopting proactive policies and activities that are deliberately designed to be inclusive.

Original post published by The Agenda Agency:

4 practical ways employers can support employees experiencing domestic and family violence

By Linda Peach and Heidi Sundin

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can ring the Domestic Violence Line for help on 1800 656 463.  More information is available here:,-carers-and-families/domestic-and-family-violence/domestic-violence-line.

What is domestic and family violence?

Domestic and family violence is a violation of human rights, characterised by the intentional and systematic use of violent, abusive or intimidating behaviours to threaten, manipulate and control family members, intimate partners or former partners. Domestic and family violence can include physical assault, sexual assault, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, social abuse and financial abuse.  Abusive behaviour usually increases over time, meaning that without intervention, people who remain in these relationships are at risk of escalating harm as time goes on.[1]

There is clear evidence that gender inequality is the primary underlying cause of domestic and family violence, via a male sense of entitlement to women. Behaviours that signal a dominant attitude towards women (and others perceived to be weaker or subordinate) usually emerge in childhood.[2]

Approximately one in six women will experience some form of domestic and family violence in their lifetime. The NSW Police receive reports of around 125,000 incidents of domestic and family violence annually, and they estimate that more than double that number are not officially reported. The cost of domestic and family violence in NSW alone is estimated to be a staggering $4.5 billion each year.[3]

What are our governments doing about it?

The Federal Government released the Third Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 in 2016. The Third Action Plan, National Priority 1:  Prevention and early intervention places a strong emphasis on the need to embed gender equality in workplace culture, increase women’s workforce participation and economic security and to increase men’s involvement in efforts to improve gender equality and reduce violence.

The NSW Government Office for Women released the It Stops Here. Domestic and Family Violence Framework for Reform in 2014. In many respects, the “It Stops Here” framework provides a useful guideline for employers. It includes a range of strategic approaches including referral pathways to people who are trained in the most effective ways to respond; broad education of people about domestic and family violence, what to look for and how to respond; and a clear policy that embeds these actions in workplace culture.

How does domestic and family violence affect workplaces?

Domestic and family violence can have a range of consequences in the workplace.  If an employee is experiencing domestic violence, they may find it difficult to concentrate, may be slow to complete work, may have an increased number of unscheduled absences, and may find it difficult to cope emotionally with even small changes in their environment. They may have lost confidence in their abilities, may show signs of increased anxiety and/or depression, may become socially isolated at work or may be uncharacteristically moody or emotional.

Workplaces can become refuges for people who are experiencing domestic and family violence, providing a relatively protected place to escape from violence for a time. When employers also intentionally provide best practice support to people experiencing domestic and family violence, they have a better chance of limiting the negative impact on the workplace and on the person or people involved.

Someone who perpetrates abusive behaviour at home may not be readily identifiable at work or in any situation outside the home. Indeed, many abusers are charming and affable people outside the relationship/s they control. Abusers may also show similar signs at work as the person they abuse, such as increased absenteeism and reduced productivity. While the victim of abuse is most likely absent through injury or incapacitation, and may be less productive due to anxiety, fear, depression and emotional trauma, a perpetrator may have increased absenteeism and reduced productivity because they are perpetrating abuse through stalking or monitoring the victim during working hours.

Domestic and family violence can also affect the workplace if a perpetrator makes threatening phone calls or sends abusive emails or text messages to someone at work or makes personal visits to the workplace of someone they are abusing.[4]  Perpetrators may also use technology they have access to at work to perpetrate abuse against someone inside or outside their workplace. Abusers may also enlist colleagues in their workplace or their victim’s workplace as ‘enablers’, often first convincing them that they (the abuser) are the victim.

While there is a limit to what employers can do if they think an employee is perpetrating domestic and family abuse, they can take some steps. Paying careful attention to informal and formal complaints about workplace harassment and bullying, particularly when there are repeated complaints about one person from different people, and taking appropriate steps to deal with any issues in the workplace. Appropriate steps may include performance management, referring a person on to professional services or taking disciplinary action. A note of caution: as an employer, the focus of any action needs to be work-related, limited to providing practical support, taking steps to ensure the workplace is safe, and referring employees on to professional sources of help.

Four ways employers can support people in the workplace experiencing domestic and family violence.


1.    Make gender equality your goal

The link between gender inequality and domestic violence is unequivocal. Employers who work to embed equality in their workplaces will be improving the lives of women who work for them and contributing to the change in social attitudes that is needed for violence against women and children to be stopped. Develop and implement a gender equality strategy to ensure your workplace is free from discrimination, that women have equal opportunities to participate and progress, that there are no gender pay gaps in your remuneration structures, and that flexible working arrangements and support for people with caring responsibilities are workplace norms.

2.    Embed acknowledgement and response activities in policies and enterprise agreements.

Develop and communicate widely policies about how to support people in the workplace who are experiencing domestic and family violence. These should include clear roles and responsibilities for managers and senior leaders to support people in these circumstances. Policies should also specify how employees who perpetrate violence or abuse in the workplace are dealt with, linking in to bullying and harassment policies and procedures. Policies should include practical steps such as who to contact and what to do under different circumstances. Policies and enterprise agreements should include details of domestic and family violence leave provisions, creation of flexible working arrangements, and access to psychological services.

3.    Training

The first point of contact when someone is experiencing issues in the workplace is usually an appointed harassment and discrimination officer. Those designated people can be trained to specifically manage situations involving a person in the workplace who discloses they are experiencing domestic and family violence. Ensuring that harassment and discrimination officers can respond in the most effective ways possible is key to providing support.

In addition, all employees should have some level of training on how to appropriately support and work with people who are experiencing domestic and family violence. Managers and leaders should have more comprehensive training that focuses on how leaders in an organisation can engage in conversations about domestic and family violence and how to effectively and confidently manage situations involving victims, survivors or perpetrators.

4.    Technology

Technology that is available in modern workplaces can be used to perpetrate domestic and family violence. It is important that employers have a clear, concise and well-known policy on the appropriate use of information and communication technology that includes penalties for misuse, and specific information about misuse in perpetrating domestic and family violence.


Domestic and family violence is not only a personal or private matter; its prevalence and cost make it a whole-of-society issue. Workplaces can be impacted through absenteeism and loss of productivity, as well as potential threats to workplace health and safety. People who are experiencing domestic and family violence can be supported through workplace mechanisms, including policies and enterprise agreements that include specific provisions, formalised leave and access to flexible working conditions. Employers can also help to reduce violence against women and children in our society by making gender equality a norm, training staff and leaders to effectively respond to colleagues who may be experiencing domestic and family violence, and ensuring that all employees are held accountable for their appropriate use of an organisation’s technology.

Original post published by The Agenda Agency:

How can universities contribute to gender equality?

By Linda Peach and Heidi Sundin

Universities are uniquely placed to embed gender equality in our social and employment systems, and yet this influence is poorly understood and used only in a scattershot fashion. We would like to see universities better use their place in the world to help ensure that gender equality becomes a norm in both our social and employment landscapes.

Mental models

Beyond skills-based training, universities develop and translate mental models about how the world works to students, who then take them out into the world of work and implement them.  For all the criticism we hear that university graduates are too ‘theoretical’ and not ‘technical’ enough, academic theories of behaviour and systems are essential to our understanding of the world.  Mental models are academic theories operating in real time.

Imagine our world today without Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind or Alexander Fleming’s theory about the Penicillium mould.  An employee who understands the theory of why something works the way it does can bring value that goes beyond just knowing how to make it work.

Gender equality is grounded in theories of how people think and behave

There are a number of theories that underpin our understanding of gender inequality and inform the ways we go about redressing it.  From early theories about sexism and stereotyping through feminist theories of systemic barriers to equality to modern theories of benevolent sexism and the male model of work, the concept of a gender equal world is firmly grounded in theory.  When we read articles in the press about sex discrimination, sexual harassment, gender pay gaps, or the difficulties of being a mother and having a career, these ideas have all originated with academic theories about why the world disadvantages women in comparison to men.

Universities can both teach and apply these theories

As organisations, universities are unique ecosystems.  Most universities employ large workforces of both academic and support workers.  The ways that universities apply equal opportunity across all levels of their workforces impacts the way their thousands of employees develop expectations of equal treatment and translate their experience to the outside world.  Universities also have a significant role to play as public adovocates for social change, and gender equality is an area where universities would do well to develop a higher profile in advocating for change.

Of course, the largest population in any university is students.  Over the course of a single year, a university is uniquely placed to have a profound impact on the way tens of thousands of students think about the world, including how they think about gender and about equality.  How the staff who interact with students experience equality in their workplaces will have a considerable impact on how they impart knowledge about equality to students.  The interaction between these domains is vitally important to the speed with which our societies move towards normative gender equality.

Universities could do more to make gender equality a core component of curricula.  Using case studies that showcase women in leadership roles, or working in non-traditional occupations, will help to change stereotyped ideals of women’s roles.  Developing programs that focus on increasing the numbers of women in postgraduate courses, and ensuring that across the life of a degree, students are taught to examine decision-making processes for unconscious biases will move more students further along the path to having an equality mindset than is otherwise possible.

Sexual harassment in our universities

Elizabeth Broderick’s 2017 report on the prevalence of sexual harassment on our university campuses should give everyone pause to think about how a gender unequal world gives tacit permission to men to behave in ways that are harassing and discriminatory towards women.  There is a clear and unequivocal link between gender inequality and sexual harassment and sexual assault.  There is also an established link between gender inequality and domestic violence which often travels via a history of sexual harassment/assault.  None of these things happens in isolation.

Diversity initiatives in universities

The good news is that most universities are now taking steps to address gender inequality in their workforces, among their students, and on their campuses.  Reporting to the WGEA has led universities to undertake an annual analysis of workforce data to investigate the representation of women at different levels, gender pay gaps, the adoption of flexible working practices and parental leave options, among a variety of other measures.  Pressure from trade unions during the enterprise bargaining cycle has seen universities adopt a number of policies that assist in the achievement of gender equality, particularly around flexible work and pay scaling.

Diversity and inclusion strategies and policies are now standard components of university governance, and most universities have at least one senior staff member devoted to embedding diversity and inclusion in the life of the institution. Universities are beginning to develop gender equality strategies, paying closer attention to the numbers of women in senior leadership roles, particularly in the academic workforce where the proportion of professors who are women is, on average, less than one third.

The Science Australia Gender Equality (SAGE) program

Introduced as a pilot in 2015, the SAGE program has been adopted by the vast majority of academic entities in Australia.  Developed out of the Athena SWAN program in the UK, the SAGE initiative rewards universities that make measurable progress towards increasing the numbers of women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) disciplines. Focused primarily on academic staff, the program also requires universities to address issues around intersectionality and the pipeline from higher degree research programs through to academic careers.

Over an initial period of 3 years in the SAGE program, universities set in train a number of investigative activities and then develop action plans to address gender inequality in their institutions.  At the end of the 3 years, universities submit an application detailing the work they have done and plan to do which is assessed by panels of experts, and if accepted, the university receives an institutional Bronze Award.  Once a university has received its institutional bronze, individual departments and the whole institution can go on to apply for silver and gold awards.  Each level of accreditation requires more complex activities which, over about 20 years, lead to systemic change in institutional norms that embed equality in the cultural fabric of each institution.

Universities as agents of social change

Our universities are uniquely placed to normalise gender equality in the minds of the hundreds of thousands of students they teach every year.  By visibly working to achieve gender equality in their workplaces, placing an emphasis on gender equality in teaching, and publicly advocating for gender equality, universities can have a major impact on the achievement of a gender equal society.

Original post published by The Agenda Agency:

How do I get my CEO on board with diversity and inclusion?

By Linda Peach and Heidi Sundin

A key enabler of any activities that address diversity and inclusion is the explicit support of senior leaders, and none is more important than that of the CEO.  When your organisation first starts to address barriers to diversity and inclusion, there is likely to be some resistance from people who are either comfortable with the way things are or don’t see any problem.  Sometimes a CEO can fall into one of these camps.

It is usually someone in the HR function who is tasked with developing and implementing diversity initiatives, and that person may also need to deal with resistance from senior leaders and others in the organisation.  In this blog post, we will look at how you can help your CEO and others to see first, the issue, and second, the benefit of addressing it.

4 practical ways to bring your CEO on the journey

It’s all in the data

First and foremost, gather, analyse and present data that will support your case.  Most senior leaders, CEOs included, respond well when they see clear evidence that an issue exists.  HR usually has responsibility for staff data, and the staff database is the first place to gather the data you need.  Reports from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Male Champions of Change and other government and non-government organisations can provide valuable background about the overall effect of diversity and inclusion (or the lack of it) on Australian businesses.  These reports also often describe initiatives that have helped to improve diversity, and these can be used to inform your own efforts.

It’s important to present data showing how other organisations in your industry or sector are dealing with diversity and inclusion.  Investing time to look through the reports available on the internet, and reading other organisations’ business publications (e.g. annual reports) and websites to understand how these issues are being addressed, is well worth the effort.

A commercial imperative

Businesses are increasingly becoming aware of the commercial benefits of having a diverse and inclusive workforce.  Research is telling us clearly that diverse and inclusive workplaces lead to improved productivity and profit.  Supply chains are also now being scrutinised for their compatibility with the diversity goals of large organisations.  For example, NAB actively works to include diverse suppliers such as businesses owned by women, Indigenous people, people with a disability and social enterprises in their supply chain.  Once this shift in procurement procedures becomes commonplace, businesses that have not effectively dealt with their own diversity and inclusion issues risk being left behind.

Diversity as a strategic initiative

Addressing diversity and inclusion issues requires more than good intentions and supportive rhetoric.  Without a visible strategic intent to be a diverse and inclusive organisation, the likelihood that initiatives will succeed is low.  Building diversity and inclusion into your strategic agenda signals to internal and external stakeholders that you are serious about fixing these problems.

Have you conducted a review of your public communications, templates, website and recruitment activities to ensure that inclusive imagery and language are included?  If not, it is recommended that addressing these key components of your public face should be an early step towards creating a more diverse and inclusive culture.

Let’s talk CEO to CEO

As most will agree, reinventing the wheel is costly and ineffective when others have already invented and refined it before you.  That’s why connecting your CEO with another who has taken action and made real progress in addressing diversity and inclusion can make a huge impact on your CEOs willingness to engage.  If the CEO you connect with happens to come from one of your clients, then the impact is likely to be even stronger.

A new CEO-led alliance – “CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion” – was recently launched in the US, with 175 companies pledging to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace.  Participant organisations include a number of Fortune 500 giants such as Cisco, Dow Chemical, HP, Morgan Stanley, and Merck.

In Australia, organisations such as the Male Champions of Change, Chief Executive Women and Diversity Council Australia have programs designed to promote and improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace.  These organisations can also help to put you in touch with other CEOs who have successfully addressed diversity and inclusion issues and can engage in conversation with your CEO.

The proof is in the pudding

Well known CEOs have this to say about diversity and inclusion:

“CEOs across the country understand this isn’t a competitive issue, but a societal issue, and together we can raise the bar for the entire business community. By sharing best known actions and programs, we are helping to create a more inclusive environment that will encourage all of us to bring our greatest talents, perspectives, and experiences to the workplace.” (Tim Ryan, US Chairman and Senior Partner of PwC)

“We fundamentally believe that we will make better business decisions if we have diversity in thinking … and that requires equal gender participation.” (Jonas Prising, Chairman and CEO of ManpowerGroup)

“You can have the most diverse workforce, but if you don’t have an inclusive environment, you’re not going to get the collaboration and innovations that come from an inclusive workforce” (Cindy Hook, CEO Deloitte Australia)

“In an inclusive culture employees know that, irrespective of gender, race, creed, sexual orientation and physical ability, you can fulfill your personal objectives by aligning them with the company’s, have a rich career, and be valued as an individual. You are valued for how you contribute to the business.” (David Thodey, former CEO of Telstra)

“Like many industries, creating an environment where everyone can thrive – not despite of who they are but because of who they are is important. The more we embrace diversity at work, the more people from different groups will be able to be their authentic selves. Companies need to realise that or they’ll lose out significantly. I also believe we need to fight against the stereotypes by challenging bias where we see it.” (Pip Marlow, CEO Strategic Innovation – ‎Suncorp Group, former CEO Microsoft)

“By understanding, appreciating, and leveraging the cultural diversity Australia has to offer, we will collectively advance local and global business opportunities for Australian businesses in the Asian century.” (Giam Swiegers, CEO of Aurecon, former CEO of Deloitte)


Explicit support from senior leaders, particularly the CEO, is critical to the success of any initiative to improve diversity and inclusion.  This post details four mechanisms that can be used to help with engaging a CEO – or any leader – in diversity and inclusion:

  • Presenting the evidence (data)
  • Explaining the commercial imperative
  • Positioning diversity as a strategic initiative
  • Connecting CEO to CEO

These mechanisms can help CEOs to understand the importance of diversity to their commercial success, and showcase other organisations that have successfully addressed diversity and inclusion.

Original post published by The Agenda Agency:

Signs of hope for a more gender equal future

This is a narrative about the journey from apathy to activism in working towards gender equality. From the early 1990s to around 2009, the conversation on gender equality had stalled. Young women (incorrectly) thought they had equality and that they could relax into a newly equal world. Thankfully, that apathy has now shifted and the conversation has been reinvigorated, giving us new hope for a gender equal future.

Dr Linda Peach

At the recent (October 2017) Growth Faculty summit in Sydney, Women World Changers, renewed hope about where the conversation on gender equality is taking us as a society was firmly on the agenda.  Professor Cordelia Fine’s work on neurosexism, emphatically debunking the myth that women and men come from different planets; Richard Denniss’ willingness to tackle the male dominance of economic privilege and his clear advice to young women – with things the way they are, don’t have children if you want to have an equal chance at financial security as the men in your sphere; Elizabeth Broderick’s work on sexual harassment and sex discrimination in Australia’s universities and her continued work to change attitudes to women in our society; even just the fact that there was a reasonable sprinkling of men in attendance speaks of new conversations and new sources of hope for a gender equal future.

Back in the late noughties when I was researching and writing my Ph.D thesis, the conversation about gender equality had stalled.  I was constantly dismayed about how many young women would say “We don’t need feminism” and “We already have equality” with the silent addendum, “Silly old duck”.  My consternation turned to concern and eventually to anger at the ways that women had been cheated out of their own deserved sense of injustice by a world that was determined to protect the interests and privileges of the patriarchy.  When I had the opportunity to do a Ph.D, this was my burning interest – what was driving young women towards mute acceptance of an unequal future?

A Ph.D, by its nature, means burying yourself in literature and other people’s research.  Over those five years, I read roughly a thousand academic papers and books (possibly not every word, but certainly enough to get a really good grasp of the plot).  From Susan Faludi’s ‘Backlash’ to Alice Eagly’s Social Roles Theory to Bandura’s Social Learning Theory to Glick & Fiske’s Ambivalent Sexism Theory… taking side roads into Catherine Hakim’s rebuttal of feminist thought and looking into religious tenets that influence gender equality.  I began to understand – really understand – the nature of inequalities, of patriarchy and power, of feminism and femininity, and of traditional and emerging masculinities.

In my research, I ran focus groups with women of all ages from 18 onwards and listened to their stories of limitations, denigrations and denials, of wishful thinking and frustrating ignorance.  I sighed at their fundamental acceptance of the fate of being female, born of their understanding that fighting it was too hard.  I did online surveys with hundreds of young women and young men and despaired at their responses.  I wondered if it was futile to even try to change such a deeply entrenched system of inequality.

I went to feminist seminars and listened to women who had fought the battles of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  I heard weariness, defensiveness and despair.  I saw women who had fought all their lives for justice and who just kept trying, even when they were being told to shut up by younger women.  I presented at conferences in Australia and in Europe that were about academic research into women’s careers, mostly focused on work-life balance, motherhood and health.  Even at these conferences, the spectre of the patriarchy was not often directly challenged. Young women at some of these conferences said to me, “That may be what your research participants say, but it’s not what any of my friends expect to happen!”

Sometime in those first couple of years of my research, Elizabeth Broderick came to speak at the University of Queensland.  She had just finished her first listening tour around Australia and I had avidly read everything I could find about it.  I listened to this powerful woman who so clearly wanted to make a real difference, and I felt a glimmer of hope.

I finished my Ph.D in 2012 and around that time, a number of things happened that began to shift the conversation about gender equality forever.  Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn were becoming serious knowledge exchange platforms with clout and people started using them to talk about issues that the mainstream media preferred to ignore.  On those platforms, women’s rights and gender equality began to have a voice again.

Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female Prime Minister (I heard about it first on Facebook).  Malala Youfsazi was shot in the head on her way to school for the crime of being a woman who wanted to be educated (Facebook again).  Tony Abbott began to offend women all over Australia and the world with his attitudes and behaviour towards women in general and Julia Gillard in particular (discussed at length on every social media platform known to humankind).  The Misogyny Speech happened (have you heard the Australian Voices’ song about it?  If not, listen here:

Issues that had been buried for decades began to resurface – suddenly the gender pay gap was news; commentary about the lack of women in leadership roles had some statistics to back it up and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency was born under new legislation developed by the Gillard government.  Elizabeth Broderick’s Male Champions of Change took off, White Ribbon started making a noise, International Women’s Day gained global momentum. The conversation began to get louder and better informed, and it began to develop a sense of purpose.  The aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election saw the global Women’s Marches that sent shockwaves around the world.

And still, the conversation is too easily sidetracked and undermined by the male-led and largely neoliberal framework of our business and political worlds.  That framework rests on the premise that if you can’t get there without us having to change the way we do things round here, there is something wrong with you personally, so stop blaming structures that restrict your access to opportunity, OK? We let you in the door; if the lift is programmed to operate faster and more efficiently for men, that’s just something you will have to overcome by being patient and taking the stairs.  And from there we end up on the “fixing women” road that ultimately leads us nowhere.

We understand the impact of the problem – lack of women in senior roles; gender pay gaps across every industry and in every organisation; women facing financial hardship and homelessness in retirement; the loss of a huge pool of talented women as pipelines leak successful women who also want to be mothers.

The problem underlying all this – the factor that persistently plagues all attempts to improve gender equality – is that women still do most of the caring and men still largely think they are required only to ‘help’.  The young women in my research overwhelmingly wanted to have children, and they also wanted to work and have careers…. and they already knew at 18 years of age that the men in their lives were very unlikely to take up 50% of parenting duties.  They already knew, at 18 years old, that at some point they would give up part or all of their paid work and careers to be parents.  They knew it with sadness in their hearts and eyes, they knew it with wisdom well beyond 18 years on the planet, and they knew it regardless of what their own parents had done.

Despite so much progress, this is the major barrier to gender equality that just refuses to budge in any meaningful way.

And when Cordelia Fine’s research repeatedly tells us that women’s brains are not in fact hardwired to do caring work; and Richard Denniss looks us all in the eye and tells us the hard, clear, economic reality that women who have children lose out financially; and when we hear from Elizabeth Broderick about the impact of sex discrimination and harassment, and people are nodding their heads at all of this…. Well, that’s hope.

The conversation is no longer stalled.  It is alive and kicking and – despite players on the world stage who do pose a serious and not-to-be-underestimated threat to progress – the apathy and denial that characterised the landscape 10 years ago is no longer in control. New voices are being raised and heard, offering different perspectives and new insights, and those voices are the hope on which a more gender equal future can be built. Our job now is to keep the conversation alive, and face the realities that, when changed, can create those better futures.