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You are the change

Yes, there is a significant gender gap, but women can empower themselves by using their skills, talents and voices to be role models to one another, writes Naomi Simson.

I was recently challenged by a finding from The Global Gender Gap Report 2014: it forecast that it will take until 2095 – or 80 more years – to achieve gender parity in the workplace. Eighty more years until the world’s available talent is fully optimised.

We wouldn’t wait 80 years to implement any other business initiative, so why are we waiting for this one? The 9th global gender gap index is an initiative introduced by the World Economic Forum and is a framework for articulating and understanding the magnitude of gender-based differences and tracking this progress over time.

As the report notes, one thing that is very compelling in current studies in this field is that companies that include more women at the top levels of leadership tend to outperform those that don’t. We are seeing examples of this awareness in organisations such as The Ventura Co-working Space – Australia’s first space for female-led tech start-ups.

We are in a time of change it seems – there is far more attention paid to this issue today than when I was 22. My father had suggested that I should learn how to touch type in case my marketing career didn’t take off … at the time I thought maybe he was right! So I dutifully went off in my uni break and did a course. It didn’t concern me that this was a very traditional female job, or that my father’s comments could be stereotyping – I guess I just don’t see the world in those terms. I see the world as an opportunity to make the best of what you have: seize the day and play to your strengths.

Photo: Network Ten

So what of this gap? In 2012, federal Parliament passed legislation, requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to report on their performance against gender-equality measures. Organisations with more than 500 employees are now required to put in place strategies to support and improve gender equality and advance equal remuneration and flexible work arrangements. It is clear we still have a long way to go despite this, given Australia was ranked 24th in the world gender gap index – no country in the world has fully closed the gender gap, but all five Nordic countries have closed more than 80 per cent of it.

Nordic countries close the gap

So what can we learn from them? The success of the Nordic countries in closing the gender gap is attributed largely to high education levels and high levels of tertiary enrolment – offering more pathways to success for both genders. In Norway, Sweden and Iceland, there are more than 1.5 women for every man enrolled in university. What we can see from this is that culture plays a HUGE role in these disparities … but we need to look at their economies; their mandatory paternal leave in combination with maternity leave (through social insurance funds and employers), tax incentives and post-maternity re-entry programs. All these things are cultural and must be examined for what they are.

The governments of each country are lobbied by different movements, are affected by different levels of economic concern, and need to prioritise spending and allocation accordingly. Unfortunately, Australians have not been given the luxurious opportunities of the Nordic countries when it comes to parental leave … hence there is often more men in Australian workplaces that have higher-level jobs. Put simply, our reality is driven by our government’s priorities most of the time. What we choose to make of it is an entirely different issue, and one that I wish to dwell on.

Active empowerment

If it is meant to be, it is up to me. Not up to my government, my family, my mentor or my employer. YOU are the change and you are the voice. There are opportunities for a balanced voice, and we must see these for what they are. I am very passionate about balanced voice – not one or the other. It is the continual reminder of the gap that allows us to fall into a false sense of security in our ability to blame it on someone else. To actively empower ourselves by using our skills, talents and voices we can be a role model and “inspiration” to others: entrepreneur Janine Allis says “if I can do it, anyone can do it”.

We give these labels and use terminology such as “gender gaps” and “disparities”; but do we profit from them? Are they constructive?

I would suggest that while an understanding and rigorous analysis of gender gaps is a critical component of our own self-awareness; it should not rule our judgement and perception of opportunity. At the end of the day, we only have 24 hours to play with. How we choose to use these hours is up to us – spending it overanalysing does not allow us to be passionate about what we love; or act with purpose and persistence on those projects or challenges we are so motivated to succeed in.

EY has recently launched Women. Fast Forward – focusing on accelerating growth by harnessing the potential of female entrepreneurs worldwide. Challenging women to think bigger, gain access to capital, learn from their peers and find advisors – all these elements are about seizing opportunity, and playing to your strengths. I am so behind this initiative and look forward to further reporting on its success.

Be that voice. Be that balanced voice.