Reshaping ‘the system’ for an equal future

Practices in our schools, workplaces, businesses and communities that reinforce biases, holding women back, can and must be changed, writes Joyce Phillips.

Twenty years ago 189 governments of the United Nations gathered in Beijing and pledged their commitment to advancing the goals of equality, development and peace for all women, everywhere, in the interest of all humanity. The occasion was the Fourth World Conference on Women.

Since then, important progress has been made. Around the world, more girls are going to school; more women are working, getting elected and assuming leadership positions. Violence against women is now on the public policy agenda, and women have gained greater legal rights to access employment, own and inherit property, and get married and divorced on the same terms as men.

But while Beijing was a turning point for global action on gender equality in a number of critical areas, in 2015 we still fall short of the objective.  

Today, women play an increasingly critical role in our global economies yet we control only a quarter of the wealth. This isn’t just a problem seen in emerging economies.  In OECD countries, women earn consistently less than men, are under-represented in governments and at senior levels of business. Australia – a country that prides itself on giving its citizens a fair go – is no exception. 

Starting ahead, finishing behind

In Australia, our girls have a strong start in life. Girls match and even exceed boys’ performance at schoolii, and enrol in university in greater numbers. More women than men graduate with a university degree. But, somewhere between the end of formal education and the first five years of entering the workforce, a shift occurs.

Women start to earn less money than men from the time they secure their first jobs – on average four percent lessiii – and they make up the majority of workers in lower-paid sectors of the economy such as childcare, education and retailiv.

As they settle into their careers, the juggling act begins between the workplace and family responsibilities. Some take time out of work to care for children, or later in life for ageing parents – so fall behind in career progression and earning potential. Many return to work in part-time or casual roles.

Career breaks and income shortfalls have a significant impact on women’s superannuation contributions and retirement savings. In fact, one in five women in Australia yet to retire will have no superannuation savings at allv.

Acting like men isn’t the answer

Put simply, the system is not designed to help women succeed. By ‘system’ I mean the structures and practices in our schools, workplaces, businesses and communities that foster social norms and reinforce biases that hold women back.

If you’re not surprised, you’re not alone. This problem isn’t new. So the question is not ‘why is this happening’? But ‘what can we do to fix it?’

For years people have been trying to tackle gender inequality by getting men and women to change. Countless articles have been written on how to hide or overcome women’s ‘deficiencies’ in the workplace, to ‘empower’ women to act more like men. How many times have you heard someone say “If you think you deserve a pay rise then walk into your boss’ office and demand it.”?

For many women, demanding recognition is not a behaviour they are comfortable with. Similarly qualities favoured in the boardroom like assertiveness, linear thinking or competitiveness, often feel unnatural to women. And if we are honest when a woman does exhibit these qualities, instead of being admired for them she is often labelled aggressive, pushy or bossy.

But women shouldn’t feel the need to change or act more like men. Organisations need to recognise the unique qualities that women bring to the table and nurture them. After all, business needs the qualities and characteristics that both men and women bring to the table to be successful and represent the customers they serve.

What we can change

It’s time to change the biases that exist within business, government and community and redesign systems so that they are fair and help everyone – men and women – achieve success. Some ways we can do this in business are:

  • Build true meritocracies where everyone is judged on the merit of their performance.
  • Challenge leadership stereotypes so the unique qualities men and women bring to the boardroom are valued and we build diverse and successful executive groups.
  • Establish flexible workplaces that allow people to manage their work and home life in a way that achieves equitable outcomes for business and family.
  • Tackle unconscious bias so that recruitment, development and talent programs fairly reward all employees regardless of gender.


Most of all across business, government and community we need to translate verbal commitment into meaningful action and leaders must hold themselves and others accountable for measurable progress and tangible outcomes. At ANZ, we are committed to doing what we can to support women and help them succeed. We’re starting by making changes to systems where we can make a difference: advice, superannuation and financial education. We don’t have all the answers but we are taking steps to move in the right direction.

Only by redesigning systems so they are more supportive and inclusive of both women and men will we be able to build better businesses and better societies. 

There is much to be done. I hope you will join us on the journey.