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Questions we must face up to

In her speech at the launch of the ANZ Women’s Initiative, former prime minister Julia Gillard considered why gender inequality persists and how we can overcome it.

I am delighted to be here for the launch of the ANZ Women’s Initiative and the ANZ Women’s Report. My congratulations go to ANZ and its leadership team for the commitment you are demonstrating to advancing the role of women in your organisation, and more broadly within our community. Let me assure you I was applauding very loudly when I first learned of your intention to pay superannuation contributions on paid and unpaid parental leave for up to 24 months, up from 12 months, for Australian based employees on their return to work.

In light of such positive news, it seems appropriate to celebrate up front the great strides we have taken as a nation towards gender equality. I stand here before you as the 27th Prime Minister of Australia and as the first woman to hold that role. When I was Prime Minister I served alongside our first female governor general in Quentin Bryce, and appointed a ministry of 10 women (33 per cent). It was not so long ago that this level of women’s representation at the highest levels of public life would have been seen as unattainable.

Indeed, the Australia we live in now looks so different to the one I grew up in. Young people look at me with a mix of surprise and horror when I tell them that part of my public school education included compulsory classes for girls in laundry as part of the study ‘home economics’. I have to quickly reassure them I am not 100 years old, just 53. This reality for Australian girls was not that long ago!

Now, our girls have more educational opportunities than ever before and they are excelling because of it.

Education and gender equity are inextricably linked.

Before I became prime minister I had the great privilege of serving as education minister. One of my proudest achievements was establishing the My School website. I’m sure most of you in this room are familiar with it and those with children have probably logged into the site once or twice to check out their school.

For those who aren’t, very simplistically, My School brings together performance, student and financial data in a way that allows us to see how all of Australia’s 10,000 schools are performing relative to similar schools. This in turn helps government to target policy solutions to ensure the neediest schools get the right level of support.

In my life post politics, I continue to work on education issues internationally through my roles as chair of the Global Partnership for Education and as a distinguished fellow with the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Just recently, this work took me to Rwanda, where I spent some time talking with the local government about accountability and quality measurements in schools, and shared our experience in Australia of My School.

As I was listing off the types of information available on My School and the ways this data can be used to give us an indication of student performance, one very bright bureaucrat asked me whether My School disaggregates data on the basis of gender. That is, she wanted to know if a tool like My School could tell us how girls were learning compared with boys, and whether it could track their performance on this measure over time.

I was genuinely taken aback by the question. Of course, in Rwanda the challenges of getting more girls into school are at the top of policymakers’ minds. They are not alone: some 31 million girls globally are currently missing out on attending primary school.

Yet when we developed My School in Australia, the idea that we would need to identify the relative performance of girls versus boys in our schools didn’t even cross our minds. That wasn’t as a result of some policy absentmindedness. We didn’t focus on specific data about girls’ learning because gender is no longer one of the main equity issues in Australian schools. Indeed, as ANZ’s report notes, girls generally outperform boys in reading and writing, and there is little or no difference in the proportions of boys and girls achieving literacy benchmarks. These trends hold true throughout a girl’s education. The majority of university students today are women, and 42 per cent of women aged 25 to 29 hold a university degree, compared to 31 per cent of men.

What a spectacular achievement this is: Australian girls start their lives with equal access to learning and all the opportunities that brings.

So what goes wrong? Why is it that as soon as girls leave the education system their prospects start to diminish?

One of the most alarming statistics contained in ANZ’s report is this one: women earn 4 per cent less in their first graduate job than men with the same qualification. Let’s reflect on this for a moment. Women, who come out of the same education system, admitted to the same universities, to attain the same qualification, are paid less than their male counterparts as soon as they enter the workforce. If we imagine that most of these students graduate in their early twenties – several years before they are likely to be married and to have their first child, which means several years before they are impacted by career breaks or the need to seek out flexible working environments – what explanation can we give for them being paid less?

From this point on it just gets worse.

Even if a woman is to seek out a postgraduate qualification, she can expect to earn less over her lifetime than a man with a year 12 qualification.1

These early gender pay gaps have a lasting impact on women’s financial security throughout their lives.

As ANZ’s landmark report documents, in every work category, women are paid less than men, and the gap widens as careers advance – notwithstanding that more women have university degrees.

A full-time working woman will earn $295 per week less on average than a full-time working man. That is $15,000 over the course of a year. Extended over the course of a typical 45-year career, that gap becomes a staggering $700,000. For most women that first pay differential is the start of a cycle of financial inequality that becomes harder and harder to rectify. For some, it will mean drifting into a lower and lower quality of life as they age. For others, it will mean retiring with inadequate superannuation. And for others still, it will mean a life of poverty.

So what are we to do about it? First, I think we need to take some time to unpack the complex issues around gender that continue to permeate all levels of our community.

I do not intend to talk about my own experiences of gender bias in public life, except to make mention of my final speech as Prime Minister, when I said that gender “doesn’t explain everything” about my prime ministership: “It doesn’t explain nothing; it explains some things. And it is for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about these shades of grey.”

Now given everything that has happened since I left office, I have had cause to wish I didn’t use the phrase ‘shades of grey’. But the sentiment I expressed that night I believe still, and one of the complexities we much confront is unconscious bias.

Our brains recognise gender in 200 milliseconds. In fact, research has shown the first characteristics we compute about people we meet are gender and race. If you feel like you notice people’s height or weight or clothing first, you are wrong. In this split second, our brain does not impose on us any stereotyping of what gender means. Our culture and experiences do that.

Sheryl Sandberg, in her 2013 New York Times bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, has popularised the results of a Harvard Business School case study where the story of achievement by a businessperson was given to students to read.

Half the students read a version where the businessperson was a woman, half read exactly the same story except that the businessperson was a man. A poll was then conducted on how likeable the businessperson was and whether the student would want to work with them or for them. The students found the man likeable and the woman selfish and not likeable. Disturbingly, both the male and female students came to these conclusions. As Sandberg points out, success and likeability are positively correlated for a man but not for a woman.

The results of this study and the many others like it are driven by cultural stereotypes that live so deep in our brain we are not really conscious of them. Distilled crudely and simply, these stereotypes are that men ‘think’, women ‘feel’; that men are to be judged on their actions, women on their appearance; that men lead, while women nurture. These stereotypes whisper to us that a woman leader cannot be likeable because she must have given up on the nurturing and feeling.

Of course, these stereotypes are not immutable. The fact that today’s Australia is a vastly different and better place for women than yesterday’s shows us that change is achievable. This means that it is possible for each generation to take a better, more balanced approach to gender questions.

Beyond these questions of likeability and leadership, there are the casually muttered sentences of bias that tend to escape much notice or debate. I’m thinking here of the questions that confront women with young children as they pursue careers in politics or business or the law. I know of female political colleagues who have had it suggested to them that the rigours of politics, particularly at the most senior levels, and their caring responsibilities for children just won’t mix.

Yet male colleagues with children don’t face the same analysis. Rather, it is simply assumed that another family member, usually their wife, will take care of children. Why, in this day and age, is having children perceived to affect a woman’s ability to aspire and lead, but not a man’s?

These are complex questions about gender that we must face up to as a nation if we are to see true equality.

Second, we must do our best to fully understand the problem that faces us.

We have no hope of rectifying inequality if we do not fully understand what drives it.

This will require us to seek out answers on inequality, even when it is uncomfortable to do so.

Today, ANZ is to be commended for taking a bold step in putting some of this data – very compelling data – on the table.

But let’s be clear, now that you have this data, you will be looked to for a continuing leadership role so that these numbers are turned around.

A quarter of ANZ’s board are women – meaning you are ahead of the ASX200 average of 20.4 per cent. This is an achievement, but of course you are not there yet.

I’m sure you believe, as I do, that merit is equally distributed between the sexes. So, until the members of your board can look around the room and see men and women in equal numbers, then you know that women of merit are missing out.

But it CAN be done. As Prime Minister I put a special emphasis on gender equity in the public service. The Commonwealth achieved its target of 40 per cent of board positions for women in 2013 – two years early.

Women of merit are out there – go find them. It can be done.

When you have found them, support them and empower them.

This is not a set of rules for ANZ – it is a series of commands for all of us.

Each of us can and should make a difference to gender equity in our world.

And each of us has so much to gain by living in a community that fully recognises and utilises the skills and capacities of all of our citizens – a society of women and men treated fairly and equitably.

Our task today is to make a contribution to that great goal. I feel energised and excited to be here. I hope you do too and you leave here buzzing with ideas and new determination to create an Australia of gender equality.

This is a transcript of former prime minister Julia Gillard’s speech at the launch of the ANZ Women’s Initiative in Sydney on July 29.