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Levelling the Playing Field

4 September 2017 at 8:40 am
Wendy Williams
Libby Lyons is the director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), which provides employers with advice, practical tools and education to help them improve gender equality. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Wendy Williams | 4 September 2017 at 8:40 am


Levelling the Playing Field
4 September 2017 at 8:40 am

Libby Lyons is the director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), which provides employers with advice, practical tools and education to help them improve gender equality. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Lyons started her career as a primary school teacher in the outer-suburbs of Melbourne before going on to work in both female and male dominated industries.

After a distinguished career in corporate affairs and government relations, most recently heading up BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam corporate affairs division, she was appointed to lead WGEA in October 2015.

As part of her role, she oversees a statutory reporting process which gathers gender equality data from around 12,000 employers and covers more than 4 million Australian employees.

The agency also works closely with employers to create workplaces in which the skills, experience and ambitions of employees are equally recognised and rewarded, regardless of their gender.

One of Lyons’ main priorities for her five-year term is to make a dent in the gender pay gap.

The latest figures show this currently sits at 15.3 per cent, a decrease of 0.9 percentage points over the previous 12-month period.

This year Equal Pay Day, which marks the additional time from the end of the previous financial year that women must work to earn the same as men, falls on 4 September.

In this week’s Changemaker she talks about the importance of acknowledging Equal Pay Day, the deep seated cultural issues holding gender equality back and why data is key to driving change.

Libby LyonsWhat attracted you to the role at the Workplace Gender Equality Agency?

Over my career I have worked in both female dominated industries, in fact I started my life out as a primary school teacher, and in male dominated industries, so prior to joining the agency I spent a number of years working in the resources industry. So I guess that I had experience in my working life, like most Australians, of having never worked in a gender equal organisation. So for me the opportunity to be able to address some of the deep seated cultural issues that exist in Australia around gender equality in the workplace, through the data that we collect and present was for me a fantastic opportunity that I couldn’t miss.

What does a typical day look like for you as director?

I start the day rather early because I always like to be in the office by about 7 o’clock in the morning, and that first hour or two of the day is fantastic for me because it enables me to catch up on reading, to get through emails that I haven’t had a chance to do previously and really just get my head together for what is coming for the rest of the day.

And a day can vary. Invariably on most days I will be speaking to one of our reporting organisations, whether it be one of their CEOs or their senior HR people, and I regularly reach out and speak out to stakeholders that we engage with whether they be people from universities or other interested parties. I spend a lot of time here with staff and working through ideas and strategies on where we’re going to go next, and then do a lot of public speaking and interviews such as this, which is really very important because I believe that the data we collect is key to driving change in Australia, in terms of levelling the playing field for women and men in the workplace. So lots of public speaking, lots of interviews, and lots of engagements with interested parties outside of the organisation.

What are the current objectives of the WGEA?

We collect data from roughly 12,000 employers across Australia, representing 4 million working Australians, we collect data about what they’re doing in their workplaces in terms of gender equality and that data is irrefutable. The scorecard that we present every year gives us a snapshot of what is happening in Australian workplaces, in any one year. And I think that when you look at that, when you look at the business case for gender equality, so the upside it provides a business in having a gender equality strategy, in getting more women into management, to sorting out the gender pay gap, to addressing flexible work policies, all of those sorts of things, not only benefit the organisation but they also benefit the economy as a whole. And I think it is the data, using concretes with the business case that provides that irrefutable evidence to change.

The other thing that is very much on our agenda is addressing the gender pay gap, to narrow the gender pay gap, because one of the consequences of the gender pay gap is the fact that women in Australia are retiring with on average, half the retirement savings of men. Now it is 2017 and I am ashamed that I have to tell you about that, and that is partly due to the fact that there is a gender pay gap in Australia. So if we can address this gender pay gap, if we can start using the data to move the dial on the gender pay gap – and the gender pay gap today is better than it was on this day last year which is fantastic – but if we can move that dial, it will go someway to helping address this absolutely appalling gap in retirement savings for women.

Why is it important to acknowledge Equal Pay Day?

I think it is important to acknowledge that for many reasons. KPMG did a report with us and the Diversity Council Australia last year that looked at the main reasons for the gender pay gap and the main reasons that they came up with was because of puerile discrimination, discrimination against women. Now whether that be because of unconscious bias or conscious bias, the fact is when it comes to pay, women are discriminated against in a lot of workplaces. Now we’re talking about half the population of the country here, so addressing that is not just the right thing to do, because it most certainly is the right thing to do, but addressing it will sort out a lot of these other economic issues that we’re grappling with at the moment, such as, as I was saying before, the disparity in retirement savings between women and men. So that is why it is important. Because in addressing the gender pay gap, not only are we righting a wrong but we are also helping a lot of individuals and their families right across the nation, so things will become that little bit better financially for people right across the nation and by extension then for the economy in general.

How close are we in Australia to closing the pay gap?

I would be fibbing if I said we were going to do it in a year, we’re not. It is something that is going to take a little bit of time, but again, this is the importance of collecting the data. In November we will release our fourth year of data, we are starting to see a time series, we will be able to start seeing trends. Now supposing we start seeing that pay gap go up again, as opposed to down which we’ve been seeing over the last three years, if we start to see that pay gap go up, we can actually get onto that immediately, do some deep dive into our data, try and find out why it is happening, what the hot spots are, what industries might be driving it, and then develop an action plan to address it, so again it goes back to the importance of collecting this data.

And really, I’ve got to thank every employer out there who reports into us, I know it is an onerous task, and I know it takes some man power to do it, but do you know what? The importance of the data that they provide us, is beyond measure, because it absolutely helps guide us to deliver positive outcomes for all Australians, and for the economy.

What are the biggest barriers to achieving workplace gender equality?

Look, I think the biggest barrier that we have is a workplace culture that has developed over the last century, really since the Industrial Revolution and since IR [Industrial Relation] laws were put into place and whatever. We have some deeply entrenched ideas about how women and men work, we have some deeply entrenched ideas about the value of the work that women and men do, and we need to change those. We need to challenge those views and challenge that way of thinking and challenge those work practices in order to create a level playing field in workplaces for all Australians whether they be women or men.

So it is those cultural challenges that are the greatest barriers at the moment and cultural change takes time. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to get there, we will, but we have to be a little bit patient because changing a culture, changing the way people think, changing the way people do things and changing their practices does take time and it takes a little bit of patience.

What keeps you motivated?

The fact that I work with a wonderful team here at the agency, the fact that I get to speak to wonderful and innovative and hardworking employees who are absolutely driven to achieve gender equality in their workplaces, that absolutely drives me on a day to day basis. The fact that people recognise that the data we collect is very, very important and now reporting for most organisations is just becoming business as usual. Now that has happened in four years, that’s fantastic, our compliance rate is very, very high, we have very few not compliant organisations, so all of those things mean that year on year we are starting to see small changes, they’re not massive changes in percentage point terms, but we’re seeing change and change is happening in the right direction, and we celebrate those baby steps. It is important that we celebrate those baby steps. So it is that, it is the motivation and the innovation of my team, and the wonderful stakeholders and organisations that I work with externally couldn’t help but motivate me on a day to day basis.

How do you find time for yourself?

I think we very much in this agency practice what we preach. We have about 85 per cent of our staff working flexibly, and where possible I am a great believer that where I don’t have a lot to do then people should get out of the office and enjoy time with their families. So if there is a day where I feel like my work is under control I’ll take an early mark and I’ll get out and go for a lovely walk along the harbour or a bit of retail therapy or go home and spend some time with my husband, do a bit of cooking, all of those sorts of things that everyday people do when they’ve got a bit of free time.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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