In defence of the male champions of change

I came into my role as the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner firmly believing that it was women working together that would drive change - that would create a more equal Australia – all I had to do was add my voice. Many initiatives focus solely on engaging and changing women. In fact all too often we look to women to change the practices that maintain the status quo. Such an approach fails to recognise the site of most organisational power.

So about two years ago, I embarked on what has been quite a controversial strategy - known as the Male Champions of Change strategy – a strategy that once again focuses on men.

How did this begin?

I picked up the phone and rang a dozen of Australia's most powerful and influential men – men who lead Australia's iconic companies like Telstra, Qantas, Commonwealth Bank and Woolworths – men who lead global organisations like Citibank and IBM – men who hold the most senior roles in Government – Secretary of the PM & C and the Treasury – and I made a personal plea. Will you use your power and influence, your collective voice and wisdom to create change for women?

Over time, we have grown to more than 25 men, who are deeply committed to a significant and sustainable increase in the representation of women in leadership.

I remember the first conversation I had. This particular CEO had twins – a boy and a girl. I explained to him that in Australia today women hold only 3% of CEO positions of the top 200 companies and only 17% of board directorships. That in every sector in Australia the basic rule is that the higher up you go the less women you see. That these results exist despite women representing more than 60% of university graduates and 50.8% of Australia's population. And finally I told him that while women were excluded from power - economic, political and social - they would be marginalised all across Australia.

Whilst we've been talking about the numbers for decades, what shifted for this CEO was the understanding that without intervention by decent powerful men, this story would become his daughter's story. His daughter would not have the same opportunities as his son – all because she was a girl. Not only did he understand the case for change with his head he started to understand it with his heart. What father wouldn't want his daughter to have an equal chance at a life free from man-made barriers?

As one of the male champions explains "Let's not pretend that there aren't already established norms that advantage men. Men invented the system. Men largely run the system. Men need to change the system." And that's what the Male champions of change strategy is all about - men stepping up beside women to change the system.

With that in mind, I remember our first get together 24 A type personalities and me – some having travelled thousands of miles to attend. The men came together to take ownership and commit to the difficult decisions that needed to be taken. As one man said "This issue is not beyond our intellectual capacity to solve. Excuses are just that!"

The discussions are serious, they are led by men, and action is taken.

I do not have time tonight to talk to you about all the actions and outcomes that have resulted from the male champions of change strategy. Suffice to say, one of their greatest contributions has been to change the discourse on gender equality and women's leadership in Australia – by helping others understand that these issues are not women's issues – they are leadership issues – that the achievement of gender equality cannot sit on the shoulders of women alone.

In the last 12 months, despite being the busiest men in our country, they have spoken at over 150 major events in Australia, Washington, New York, Tokyo, London and Brazil to name but a few – persuading others that they must get on board.

Some are doing things that only CEOs can do such as "all roles flex" initiative - changing the starting point of work so that flexibility is the starting point rather than the 24/7 ideal worker model. They have adopted the panel pledge to ensure they do not automatically accept invitations to speak at events where there are few women. And their supplier multiplier initiative will ensure that tens of billions of dollars of annual spend is directed to those partners and suppliers who also care about gender equality.

In the early days, it would have been easy to dismiss the group as simply another "boys club". A few people did, especially given there was clearly a reputational and relationship-building opportunity on offer through participation. It took us some time to come to grips with the underlying issues, but once we did, the imperative for a focus on action became clear. We agreed that every member had to play their part and that we would not tolerate free-riders.

The Male Champions recognize that change starts with them. Every single one of them admits to being imperfect as a role model on gender equality. On occasion their actions and words can still unconsciously and inadvertently come across as impolitic or out-dated in a world of gender-nuanced norms and language. But they are committed to learning from their mistakes. This is what strong leadership for gender equality looks like. Listening first, learning through collaborating with others and then taking strong action.

Men taking the message of gender equality to other men; that is what will change the picture of gender equality in Australia.

This is an edited extract of a speech given by Elizabeth Broderick at the Big Ideas under the Dome Lecture State Library of Victoria last week. It is republished with permission. You can read the full speech here.

Elizabeth Broderick

Elizabeth Broderick is Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

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