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Diversity Vs Inclusion - The Next Great Challenge

24 October 2012

Alan Jones' ridiculous claim on national radio that women are Destroying the Joint, to the apparently prolific use of sexist jokes and crass texts amongst our politicians, the continuing concern over a lack of female representation in our corporate ranks and the over sexualisation of women in the media, so well captured in Miss Representation, which was screened recently by Women in Film and Television.

Then there is of course, Prime Minister Gillard's now famously scathing address in Parliament about sexism and misogyny. And while the context of what provoked the speech may not be remembered for long, the speech may well become a milestone address in Australia's political and gender equality history.

It is amazing to me that such a speech, complete with quotes and dates as evidence, should be possible in Australia in 2012. In a country that over 110 years ago, was enlightened enough to led the world with New Zealand in granting women the right to vote.

Clearly pockets of sexism still exist in Australia. But despite the recent headlines, I have seen enough change in my working life to believe it is dying out.

To illustrate, when I started my career in the mid 1990's I would encounter comments from bosses, clients and colleagues about 'men just want to deal with men in authority', 'women are too emotional for the workplace' or that women choose not to lead because they 'prefer to have children' or are 'not competitive or tough enough' to do the job.

As I went through my first five years or so I also got the inspiring advice from a senior executive that they would never appoint a female senior trade commissioner to the US because the market was too tough. Fortunately, not all senior executives at the time where sexist, they were all male, but they were not all sexist.

One in particular had a clear belief in diversity amongst his Trade Commissioners. He recruited Australian males and females, young and old, with diverse personal and professional backgrounds and capabilities.

Nevertheless even within his more enlightened leadership team, which I was privileged to join as one of the youngest trade commissioners directly responsible for a region (Spain & Portugal), one of my male colleagues thought it an amusing joke to ask me who I'd slept with to secure the position.

But here is where the good news starts to kick in. Since then, I can probably count on one hand the number of sexist comments, jokes or behaviours I've encountered in my career. That's remarkable when I think how commonplace it was in the late 1990's.

So for me the bigger challenge isn't about sexism anymore. I very rarely encounter businessmen with genuinely sexist ideas about the roles and capabilities of women in the workplace.

It isn't even about arguing the economic, problem solving or reputational advantage of diversity. That argument too has emerged in my lifespan and in my opinion, been largely won in Australia.

I seldom walk into a boardroom or business leadership team these days where there isn't at least a fairly basic awareness of the global research showing the sustained, positive financial impact on companies embracing diversity on their boards and in their senior management teams.

No, the next great challenge is \"Fair and Equal Access to Opportunities\". Fair and Equal Access, such a bland phrase, such a powerful notion.

Again, let me illustrate with a personal example. Remember that enlightened senior executive who embraced diversity in his team? Well after having served as Trade Commissioner, Spain & Portugal, I had to consider my next move. The Senior Trade Commissioner position in Los Angeles (LA) was advertised.

After applying for it, my Executive had the job of advising me that the selection committee had determined I would not be getting an interview. I can't remember the reason given to me, but whatever the excuse, I was stunned.

Having taken the worst performing team in his region and turned it into one of his top performing teams, I found it amazing that a merit- based process could determine I was unsuitable to even interview for LA - which coincidentally, was one of the worst performing teams in the entire global network at the time. I expressed these views and to his credit he championed my cause.

I got the chance to compete and against the odds, I got the job. Over the next few years I turned that post into a top 10 global performer, started the Australian Music Office, was one of the four original founders of G'day LA and was asked to take on responsibility for San Francisco and indeed all of the West USA posts during my time in LA.

But none of it would have happened without a Fair and Equal access to the opportunity.

I will probably never know what the real reason was behind the initial decision not to let me interview for LA, perhaps it was sexism, ageism or perhaps a simple, pragmatic concern of having too many Senior Trade Commissioners already at level and not wanting to add to the ranks.

Whatever the reason, I clearly only got my chance to compete because a male in an executive leadership position championed my argument.

We are lucky in Australia that today there seem to be lots of strong, male champions keen to try to ensure women get a chance to compete on merit in their organisations. They champion the inclusion of women on boards, flexible working practices, access to childcare, the right for women to choose a career, a family or both. We all owe them a debt of gratitude.

But as grateful as all women should be to these agents of change, Fair and Equal access to opportunities should not be dependent on individual champions.

I don't know how we'll get there, but I look forward to the day I can write how unremarkable it now is that women represent about 50% of the workforce - from receptionists to CEOs.

Kylie is the Executive Director for Investment & Export Services for the New South Wales (NSW) Government. NSW is Australia's largest State and its capital is Sydney, Australia. Her Department helps investors to set-up in NSW and helps local companies export to the world.

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