There is strong evidence that addressing the gender gap in business has a positive impact on the bottom line. And of course it stands to reason that utilising the best and brightest across the community makes for stronger and more efficient organisations.
In this vein I would like to discuss the following basic, but critical points with you this evening:
Firstly: more women in Government and Parliament will make for better governments and parliaments.
Secondly: in order to achieve this, we need to dismantle the so called "merit" argument. That is, the commonly, but I believe incorrectly held view, that we can somehow get more women in office and higher office on so called "merit" alone. This argument needs to be turned on its head!
Thirdly: I believe that it is only when we reach a sustained level of critical mass of women in politics that there will be a seismic shift in our perceptions of leadership.
A few years ago, I probably would not have spoken at a forum such as this for fear of being stereotyped or not being judged for my achievements, but rather being judged in the context of my gender. Fortunately, I have seen the error of my ways.
I especially want to pay tribute to all the men who are here this evening.
Women talking to other women does not cause the change that is required to address the gender imbalance.
In his absence, I would like to acknowledge our Premier Mike Baird, who is one of the best male champions I know. He and I are in constant discussion about what we can do personally to address gender imbalance in Government and across the community.
While governments have policies in place which increase the number of women on government boards and within the senior levels of the public service, there is clearly more work to be done when it comes to the representation of women to elected office – where arguably the biggest decisions are made.
Twelve years in public life and more than twenty years of involvement in party politics have really crystallised my personal views on why barriers exist, what we need to do to overcome them and the incredible opportunity this brings for better Government.
As I said up front, more women in Government and Parliaments are better for community outcomes, just as more women in business are better for the bottom line.
More than fifteen years of research supports the theory that there is a strong correlation between a company’s performance and the diversity of its leadership. And as we know, the foundation of high performing organisations is sound decision making.
A great example of the importance of diversity in decision making comes from Dr John Coates, a Cambridge University neuroscientist who incidentally also happened to run a trading desk at Deutsche Bank.
In 2012, he wrote about how the biological make up of men results in male traders becoming overly aggressive in a bull market and risk averse in a bear market, leading to adverse outcomes in financial markets. He found, in contrast, that women generally have a different biological profile and are less prone to this type of decision making. Coates explains that while men and women generally have an equal appetite for risk, they arrive at the decision to take that risk differently. Men tend to rely on rapid reaction based on impartial information, while in contrast, women prefer to take more time to think things through and gain a clearer picture before making a decision.
This phenomenon is equally applicable to politics.
Of course one approach is not necessarily better than the other – but we have to create an environment where both approaches are utilised.
There are, of course, scores of studies completed in the past few decades on the multidimensional advantages of greater gender diversity in decision making. And so there is a scientific basis to the important point that more women in Government leads to better outcomes.
I put it to you that whilst it is logical to argue that we need more women in Parliament because we make up half the population and it’s the right thing to do – this is not the most compelling argument. It is a necessity to have more women in Parliament because the different approaches to decision making make for stronger Government and better outcomes for our state and national well-being.
Gender balance is a necessity, not a ‘nice to have’, and this sense of urgency needs to drive our approach to collectively fixing the problem of female under-representation.
Which brings me to the second point: how do we bring about this change?
I believe that first and foremost we need to dismantle the so called "merit" argument. That is, the commonly held view that "merit" alone should determine how many women are elected. What do I mean by this?
In the NSW Parliament, female representation is just 20.4 per cent in the Lower House and at the Commonwealth level, that figure is 26.7 per cent. This means the leaders of the major parties struggle to achieve gender balance in their Cabinets and Shadow Cabinets.
The basic and logical conclusion is that we need a lot more women winning preselections and being elected to Parliament. This is why I believe the “merit” argument is well passed its use by date.
The “merit” argument suggests that the preselection methods chosen by each major party are as equally advantageous to women as they are to men.
I would argue this is not the case.
The odds of getting preselected are well and truly stacked against women.
The way to overcome this is for each major political party, including my own, to set targets for the number of women preselected in winnable seats (both upper and lower houses) at every election. These deliberate targets should be kept in place until at least 50 per cent of our elected representatives are female.
I also want to get something off my chest.
I don’t buy the argument that women don’t want to be in politics or that not enough women put their hand up. There are plenty of extraordinary women out there who want to make a contribution. But after a few enquiries they quickly find out how difficult it is to break in to politics through the preselection process – especially if they are new to the game.
I also want us to be conscious of the oft-quoted reason that there aren’t enough women in Parliament because the environment isn’t “family-friendly”.
No doubt this argument is well and truly justified.
But let’s also be careful that by suggesting this is the main reason more women aren’t in politics that we don’t further entrench stereotypes that women should be, or are always, the primary care givers.
Let’s leave it up to families to make those choices and let’s accept that a “family-friendly” environment should be just as important to men as it is to women.
For instance, I make sure that the male members of my staff have just as much support to lead balanced lives. By doing that I am supporting their partners who are experiencing similar challenges of juggling family responsibilities in their own workplaces.
This topic is covered really well by Annabel Crabb in her book “The Wife Drought”, which is great reading.
Thirdly and significantly - it is only when we reach a sustained level of a critical mass of women in politics that we can expect a seismic shift in our perceptions of leadership.
Without a critical mass, women in leadership positions, whether in business or in politics, will always remain a novelty.
It is telling that I received more publicity for being the first female Treasurer than I did for a number of things I achieved whilst serving four years as the State’s Transport Minister.
Fortunately the novelty of women in high office is wearing off, which is a good thing. And critical mass is central to this.
Not only will critical mass assist in the way women leaders are dealt with by commentators, but it will also change society’s perception of leadership.
I carry substantial guilt, as I am sure that somewhere deep in my own subconscious there exists pre-conceived notions of leadership and what strong leadership looks like.
We don’t need to think too far back in history to a time when shear physical strength and military prowess were the sole epitome of strong leadership – fortunately we have moved on from there.
But those lingering subconscious barriers or attitudes are still there and part of our human evolution.
An interesting case study on this entrenched bias, which you may have come across, is in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink”.
Gladwell tells the story of a trombonist, who against all odds beat her male peers to a top position in the Munich Philharmonic. But she was only successful because they were blind auditions, that is, she auditioned behind a screen and the selection committee had assumed she was a man.
A year later she was demoted and when asked why, she received this reply: “You know the problem, we need a man for the solo trombone”.
This is a stark example of how perceptions about gender roles and leadership impact on getting the best results.
On a more practical level – a critical mass of women in politics will not only shift perceptions of what constitutes strong leadership, but will also bring about much needed change to our current political culture.
That’s why, in conclusion, I put it to you that the best thing we can do is to reform our political parties to ensure more women are elected to office and we shouldn’t stop until at least 50 per cent of our elected representatives are women.
To realise the significant dividends of diversity, to achieve stronger Governments, better decision making and positive changes in our attitudes towards leadership, we need a critical mass of women elected to Parliaments.
Thank you very much for listening and for having me here this evening.