I’m not a feminist, but….
24 August 2012 at 1:28 pm
We are heading in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to be done in getting equal representation for women on Australia’s boards says Melinda Cruz, the CEO of The Miracle Babies Foundation.
As I arrived yesterday, I wasn’t sure what I’d learn at the Commonwealth Bank’s Women in Focus Conference. The theme is New Frontiers and the discussion is around visionary, courageous and expansive leadership – challenging the status quo, embracing new frontiers and not holding back. One of the very first speakers we heard from is a leader who has lived all those qualities. And what did I learn?
Well perhaps surprisingly for the CEO of an organisation that is so closely linked with women and their families, I’ve learned that maybe I am a feminist (no buts!).
Wendy McCarthy, AO is one of Australia’s leading feminists. She went to university at 16 years old in the 1950s, when women didn’t go to university and certainly didn’t expect to have a career. On completing her studies, she entered one of the few career paths open to women, starting work as a teacher. She taught in Australia, married and together with her husband travelled to the UK and taught overseas, where she saw that other countries had more progressive approaches to women in the workplace.
On returning to Australia, Wendy was told that she would get no credit for her teaching experience overseas and that since she was newly pregnant, she would not be suitable. How ironic to be told that as a soon-to-be parent, you aren’t an appropriate teacher for children!
During the 70’s Wendy marched with hundreds of other women to demand equality and lobbied on key issues such as childcare and contraception. She knows that women today are the beneficiaries of the changes driven by women in previous years who stood up and said ‘this is unacceptable’.
She is bewildered by the way the feminist movement has lost traction, saying “How did the F-word become so scary, despite gender being back on centre stage and women holding important public positions? I often hear the chorus ‘I am not a feminist, but’ – followed by a litany of concerns that sound like gender issues but are not identified that way.”
Coming after the women who drove changes to the status quo and embraced new frontiers, Wendy says we have a responsibility not only to take advantage of those hard-won changes to our circumstances; but also to drive change for the next generation. And when women work together, she says, things change!
I know this to be true because it’s exactly what happened when I stood up and said ‘It is not acceptable that miracle families have no access to support or services when their baby is born premature or sick’. I banded together with other mums to make important changes to the lives of thousands of Australian families of premature and sick babies. We could not be afraid and had to take some big risks, because what we were doing had never been done in Australia before.
Although men are an important part of our organisation, women play the biggest part in its development, expansion and sustainability. I’m very proud that our board is a clear 50 / 50 split between women and men. But there’s a lot of work still to be done to get more women on boards across Australia. Boards govern industry and industry governs the future direction and prosperity of our country, so it’s critical that boards represent who they ultimately serve – the population of both men and women.
Wendy McCarthy has said, “I grew up in Australia of the 1950s, when words like ‘career’ and ‘leadership’ were not part of a polite girl’s vocabulary. A leader was a male hero directing from the front, military-style, the antithesis of a well-raised girl, who learned to wait to be asked to dance and not be bold or pushy. This remains a powerful cultural imprint for women today.”
In relation to getting more women on boards, Wendy told the conference yesterday that women need to learn to take a risk; “Say yes and learn how to do it later. Sometimes you need to crash through and be brave about it. What’s the worst that can happen? Sometimes people won’t like you – get over it. If you don’t challenge the assumptions of what women can do, we will keep women where they are. Say YES to risk and opportunity. Take the plunge and see what happens – going into a boardroom is a relatively safe way of learning this.”
We are heading in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to be done in getting equal representation for women on Australia’s boards. According to the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) the latest percentage of women on ASX 200 boards is 14.5% as at 16 August 2012. The number has increased significantly on 2010 and 2011.
In the Not for Profit sector we’re doing much better, with research from Women on Boards in 2008 showing that women comprised 30% of directors in top NFP organisations.
But, we can’t afford to be complacent. Even in the NFP sector there is still work to be done in getting – and keeping – a true 50 / 50 gender representation on our boards. In the words of Mahatma Ghandi, “we must be the change we wish to see in the world”.
Miracle Babies Foundation is Australia’s leading organisation supporting premature and sick newborns, their families and the hospitals that care for them.
Follow Melinda’s tweets from the Women in Focus New Frontiers Conference – @melinda_cruz