Why it’s ok to say the business case for gender equity is bullshit

It’s okay to say the business case for gender equity is bullshit. Actually, I encourage it. Nodding along – being tokenistic about it, not understanding it – is the real problem.

I often say to the senior men I meet in my roles: “I am giving you permission to be as politically incorrect as you like. Challenge me on any aspect of gender equity.”

Sometimes I might not like the questions. But I’m a firm believer that dialogue is how you build understanding and make progress. Those of us who are the strongest advocates of gender equity, like me, have as much responsibility as anyone to fully justify why the business case and social equity case are rock solid.

We need to be outspoken about the real issues

At my core, I believe in fairness and in equity at all levels. It is plainly unjust that half of our population isn’t given equal access to economic opportunity. I’m frustrated that others can’t see that gender equity is critical in creating an inclusive society, or why that is a good thing for everyone.

Many people say, “people should be hired on merit”, without recognising that women have fewer opportunities to demonstrate their merit, and even to continue their learning in order to generate that merit.

But by the same token, these people don’t often have an opportunity to really understand. They don’t have this opportunity because too many people back away from rigorous conversations about the topic. Being politically correct doesn’t help us to make real progress on this issue.

Gender equity is fundamentally an economic issue

We know that the biggest driver of GDP in Australia has historically been increased workforce participation. The robustness of the economy is directly linked to its scope and diversity. And as our population ages, we’re going to see more and more skill shortages. Unless we can offer women equal conditions – equal pay, equal benefits, equal seniority – they won’t be compelled to participate. Without them, the workforce ages out. Without them, skill shortages are amplified.

Not only that, but we are training women and men with equal voracity. Women make up more than half the population, but only 24% of ASX200-listed board members. Women are about half the tertiary student body in STEM industries, but only a quarter of the workforce. Without encouraging women through into senior roles, all of this training investment is simply lost.

We know, too, that women make up the biggest group of consumers, and that they make about 80% of household decisions. It seems an obvious argument – women are your market, so they should be part of the senior team – but companies are still struggling to reconcile it. And that’s got a lot to do with knowing how to have the conversation at all.

We need to take every opportunity

Ultimately I want people to say “here’s what I think… can you tell me why that’s not right?”

I want us to raise our voices about economic fairness and the way it fosters good business. I want a chance to create empathy around this issue. I want the opportunity to describe how it feels to be paid less for the same job, to know I’m likely to retire with only 65% of the super a man will.

If I can get this across to the broader set of ASX directors, maybe they will begin to understand the dilemma that women face. That it’s not only about looking for gender equity because it’s politically correct, but because it’s personally empowering, and empowered women are just as vital to a buoyant economy as the men who’ve historically led it.

There is a watertight business case for gender equity, and we should take every opportunity we can to talk about it.

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