Equality for All

When I was in my late 20s, I was appointed General Counsel for a major corporation after spending my early career in private practice predominantly in litigation. At the time the reaction from the senior ranks of the male dominated Melbourne legal fraternity was one of shock and surprise – mixed with a touch of resentment. Who does this young woman think she is; and what are they doing appointing her?

I was the first senior woman in my company to have a baby. I was at work when I went into premature labour, the only woman in a boardroom full of men. When the contractions started, I looked around the room, snuck out and took myself off to hospital. Thankfully the contractions stopped and my pregnancy went to full term. When I rang one of my board colleagues from my hospital bed to explain the situation he got impatient with me and asked whether I’d be in the next day. Many women of my age will have similar stories of Australian corporate life in the 1990s.

Then there was the unspoken rule – a woman of childbearing age would be moved down the pecking order in favour of a man. It was subtle, but unconscious bias often is.

In my capacity as General Counsel for several large companies, I was often involved in board-level succession planning where we would discuss potential promotions for the emerging high potential executives in the company. These were sophisticated global organisations and yet capable women would often be described as being ‘outspoken’ or ‘really ambitious’, as if that were a bad thing. The same descriptions were always applied to their male colleagues in a positive way. Sometimes women were negatively noted to ‘work late’, hinting at a woman who was perhaps neglecting her second full time job at home, or contrarily if they left before 6pm to pick up kids by childcare close time – it became known as the “walk of shame”. Then there was the unspoken rule – a woman of childbearing age would be moved down the pecking order in favour of a man. It was subtle, but unconscious bias often is. We all have unconscious biases, which can lead to the belief that advancement occurs solely on merit. However, discrimination and other forms of inequality mean that the meritocracy argument is hopelessly flawed. It just doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.

People talk about part-time work and the option of working from home, yet a key barrier holding women back is absence. When women are absent from the daily workplace, due to maternity leave, carer’s leave or part-time work, things tend to progress without them. Women my age are often regarded as “the sandwich generation” taking on the role of primary caregiver of aging parents once their children’s responsibilities reduce. I doubt there would be a woman who hasn’t felt anxious heading off on maternity or carer’s leave, thinking that the secondee into their role is going to want their job. The only time I’ve sensed this anxiety in men has been where partners of big law firms take an enforced three-month sabbatical for fear of losing major client accounts to someone else in their absence. To balance these established inequities, I’m a strong supporter of targets and quotas, in business and in politics. Some people may not see this as fair but quotas have been used effectively in the past to correct gender imbalance. In fact they were introduced in Australia when there weren’t enough male primary school teachers. I think quotas are a necessary reality in politics. Targets are proven in the corporate world where they can be aligned to salaries, incentivizing people at all levels of organisations to achieve gender balance within their teams. Quotas are a harder measure, but in politics we need them.

People talk about part-time work and the option of working from home, yet a key barrier holding women back is absence. When women are absent from the daily workplace, due to maternity leave, carer’s leave or part-time work, things tend to progress without them.

Like many women of my age, I had wrongly thought that the problem of gender equality would be fixed by now, and targets and quotas would no longer be required. The low ratios of women in leadership positions indicates otherwise. Today, young women hold the same view that I did in my twenties. They say to me, “it will be fine with our generation”, but there’s still a way to go. The imbalance between work and home duties between men and women is well documented and it’s this imbalance that often holds women back in pursuing career opportunities.

For me, politics came later in life. I’d thought about it throughout my corporate career but it wouldn’t have given me the same financial and career stability I achieved by my working in the private sector in business. So it’s not surprising to me that people often ask me why I gave up a perfectly good high salaried full time corporate role to enter the world of politics.

When the opportunity arose for me to run for preselection for the marginal seat of the Chisholm where I’ve lived and worked and studied (at Monash University) – I took it. As someone with immigrant heritage, I understand and relish Chisholm as it’s one of the most diverse electorates in the country. And to continue the advocacy for equality which I’d done in my corporate life on a broader platform was an opportunity I couldn’t dismiss.

As a Member of Parliament, I stand fundamentally for making sure we have an equal world for all. Unconscious bias is an issue with regard to women and indeed to people of non-Anglo Saxon cultural heritage. Looking different, or indeed having olive or dark skin or a foreign sounding family name often creates an unconscious cultural bias where people are considered to be somehow “less Australian” than their friends of Anglo Saxon heritage.

To date, the highlights of my time as an MP have been the sessions I’ve led particularly with female students and school leavers in Chisholm which has an incredibly diverse cultural heritage mix. It’s energising to see their aspirational minds come to life in these sessions albeit I know that young women in their 20s and 30s are still dealing with unconscious bias or in some case conscious bias in both its forms: gender and cultural unconscious bias. I often refer to it as “double unconscious bias”.

I want to make Chisholm a better place for people to live and particularly a better place for girls and young women. Young women want to take on the world but there’s going to be roadblocks and I’m confident that through an increasing number of male and female role models and mentors and their own drive they will navigate these roadblocks.

I know a young woman in her late 20s, a third generation Australian, a qualified doctor of southern European migrant heritage with dark features and a foreign sounding surname. She feels she is often mistaken as the assistant or from a foreign country. She’s navigating through these roadblocks as many women have and continue to do.

For inspiration, I often look to my electorate’s namesake, Caroline Chisholm. She was a feminist before her time, before feminism had a label, and she pioneered multiculturalism in Australia.

Young girls and women can’t sit back and think that feminism or cultural bias is only a cause for my generation. It’s still an issue but it’s more likely unconscious or swept under the carpet. It’s important women continually look to role models, mentors and those before them as a guide to call out and stand up to behaviour where there is a conscious or unconscious imbalance of power (think recent workplace sexual harassment scandals) so that equality is not compromised for future generations.

For inspiration, I often look to my electorate’s namesake, Caroline Chisholm. She was a feminist before her time, before feminism had a label, and she pioneered multiculturalism in Australia. With the backing of her husband she supported new migrants, particularly young women who would have otherwise faced a world of prostitution and homelessness. She took them in, creating the Female Immigrant Home to help them establish a new life. She was one of the first supporters of Chinese migrants throughout the Victorian goldfields. She stood up to all manner of forces in society, and it’s fascinating that so many themes from Caroline Chisholm’s life still exist today – the work is not yet done.

The drive to achieve equality for women in society has to come from each of us as men and women. The situation won’t be different for young women today unless we all take the fight on in every sphere of life. Young women need to realise that and to always be their own person.

I entered politics so that my advocacy could be on a broader platform; to continue to navigate any roadblocks I can to support and encourage equality for all regardless of their gender, ethnicity or sexuality.

Many believed I was foolish to campaign and openly support the “Yes” vote in the recent Marriage Equality survey because of the diversity of cultural heritage in my electorate. Their unconscious cultural bias assumed that people from certain non-Anglo heritage would be against marriage equality. The result of the “Yes” vote in Chisholm and indeed across Australia speaks for itself. It was wrong to make judgements that people would vote aligned simply to their heritage. The Australian people and indeed the people of Chisholm have shown that their voice can bring about change and strengthen equality. I’m so proud to have played my part under the leadership of our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, where despite all the roadblocks, we now have marriage equality and a more fair, equal and modern Australia.

I believe all politicians and leaders should always stick to what they stand for… and equality for all is what I stand for.

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