In 1995, Sue Vardon was named the inaugural winner of the Telstra Business Women’s Awards. Two decades later, she’s still disappointed that many of the challenges she faced in the 1990s still confront women today, but optimistic that change is happening.
Vardon has spent more than two decades as a chief executive in Commonwealth and state government agencies, and has been largely celebrated with establishing Centrelink as its inaugural chief in the 1990s. The former social worker has also been a member of numerous councils, panels and commissions, and an advisor to government departments at home and abroad.
She says she entered the Telstra awards for one reason: she wanted to go to a correctional services conference in South East Asia and needed the prize money to fund it. “I saw the prize and thought, ‘If I could win the government one [cateogry], I could fund this trip.”
And when she did make it to the conference, she recalls being continually asked: “And whose wife are you?”
Recently, I had a chat with Vardon about what it felt like winning that award all those years ago, and how much she believes has actually changed for women in the two decades since.
“I do this check every year at the awards. I say, ‘Wow isn’t it fantastic where the women are?’ They’re higher, global, faster, smarter, they’re everywhere. You hear many stories of women who’ve struggled,” she says.
“But often the big success stories are from women self starting and being in their own business, because for many of them they’ve hit brick walls in traditional places. And I feel really sad for companies that can’t understand what they’re missing out on — that energy, creativity and money! There are still too many companies that haven’t opened up their internal structures to allow women to flow through.”
So what needs to change for women in business? Vardon shared eight things she believes will help.
More women in senior public positions. If we accept that women represent 50% of the workforce, then we have to ask why this is not repeated through all levels of endeavour especially at the senior positions and on boards. Women have demonstrated competence and original thinking, so there can be no excuses. This is an issue of leadership and fairness. The Male Champions of Change have recognised that there has to be change. They are making a strong effort to demonstrate workplaces can be different and more equitable in their profile.
More focus on the economic value of diversity. There is much research on the proven economic value of diversity, with studies showing greater workplace gender diversity leads to an improvement im the bottom line and customer satisfaction. Woolworths and others are taking the lead. Others will follow. The economic drawcard has more value than representation for representation sake.
An end to like for like recruitment. We need to recognise that many men still recruit in their own image and from limited networks and find ways to end this. Networking and mentors can help women break through, but men also need to play their part in moving on.
More stories of success. There are still many women who haven’t been part of a network where they can get the confidence they need to believe they can reach leadership positions. We need to hear more stories of success to remind all women of what’s possible. Also, we need a new tape in the heads of women, something other than that soundtrack that says, ‘I’m not good enough!’ Currently, we’re still setting the bar for ourselves too high.
Equal treatment. We need a greater understanding from senior men that women don’t need to be highlighted in meetings as being female, but simply treated as equals and given a fair opportunity to speak up.
Equal opportunities. Women need to have an equal share in being given opportunities to push the boundaries and explore new opportunities. If large employers don’t do this, they’ll simply miss out as women will leave and create their own businesses.
Equal childcare. Both men and women in the workplace need to share the responsibility for looking after the kids, especially when formalised care is not an option — such as when the kids are sick. Too often it’s the woman who has to take time off, or leave work early to collect the kids.
Equal acceptance. More men need to be able to accept that their wives/partners earn more than themselves, and that that’s ok! Men should better support and celebrate the careers and success stories of their wives and partners, and yes that may mean doing a greater share of the housework.
Angela Priestley is the editor of Women’s Agenda, where this article originally appeared.