In summary

  • International Women’s Day opinion piece by Swinburne Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Pascale Quester, originally published in The Australian

Women in leadership and achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world are the key themes of this year’s International Women’s Day. Such a day is important to acknowledge how far women have come but, critically, it also reminds us how much further we must go to achieve a genuinely equal future.

Women and men collectively have a vital role to play in breaking glass walls, the invisible barriers that limit women getting the jobs they want — not always up the ladder but in any direction.

The most effective tool for shattering those glass walls is education, traditional and non-traditional, to enable more deserving women to have a seat at the decision-making table.

During the past year, significant events have reminded us of the importance of continuing to help women rise to their full potential.

The US elected its first female vice-president. Time magazine’s first “kid of the year” was a 15-year-old girl who was a scientist and an inventor. Closer to home, New Zealand appointed its first Indigenous female foreign minister. Notably, this year all Australian of the Year Award recipients were women — for only the second time.

Unfortunately, 20 years into the 21st century, we are still celebrating gender firsts rather than focusing on the achievements of these worthy individuals.

The world lost a true female champion last year, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The second woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, she caused many to reflect on her impact. She said: “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”

Yet only seven per cent of chief executive appointments in the ASX 200 are women. Female leadership in senior roles is flatlining and almost two-thirds of ASX 200 companies have no women in their talent pipeline. This is despite women delivering excellent results.

Last year, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency found that Australian organisations with female chief executives boosted company profits by $80m on average. Where is the disconnect? Why is it taking so long to see that women in leadership are critical for the economic and social advancement of our country?

From an early age, I have been passionate about education and having a clear purpose. For me, education was the key to a world of potential.

My parents never got the chance to complete high school yet were determined that my sister and I would benefit from an education to create a purposeful life and contribute to society. Education is a transformational gift and I am committed to sharing this gift with others.

In today’s world, having an education means much more than achieving a formal qualification. It means having the capacity to argue and defend a position in a persuasive, respectful manner. It is about helping people understand the world to enable them to be ready for, not afraid of, what the future brings.

At Swinburne University of Technology, we are providing opportunities for women to advance their education in areas that will give them a voice and make a difference in the world.

For example, our Swinburne Youth Space Innovation Challenge inspires high school students to imagine a career in space and strives to be a diverse program with a 50-50 split of girls and boys.

It is not just teaching science to students; it is normalising women in science.

The future is a tech-rich environment where girls will be intrinsically disadvantaged if they do not understand or are unable to work with technology. Similarly, the Swinburne Women’s Academic Network mentors our talented women to achieve academic promotion. Our Research Fellowships for Women in STEM have helped amazing women focus on their research and maintain job security. Across the university sector, the Science in Australia Gender Equity initiative is addressing gender equity in higher education and research.

Are we there yet? No. Women in senior STEM positions make up only 30 per cent of academics at Swinburne, but we are taking action to achieve gender parity. Across Australia, women make up about 60 per cent of university enrolments.

However, this is not translating to leadership positions once their careers are in full swing. Our pipeline is full, but we are losing many women along the way. In technology and engineering areas, female graduates are snapped up, but they eventually change careers because of the lack of opportunity for leadership and growth. To achieve genuine parity, we need male and female leaders to champion women at the leadership table. Diversity of thought is critical to good decision-making if we are to build a better future for all.

Today is a good reminder that we can all better support women in leadership positions. Create opportunities to mentor women and allow them to learn on the job. Recommend and sponsor educational opportunities for women.

Together, we need to break those glass walls so that today’s girls can go anywhere. And my advice to girls everywhere? Be curious. Be committed. Be adventurous.

This opinion piece was originally published in The Australian.

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