Members of the tech community say Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s loosely laid out plans to improve the workplace at Parliament House are a step in the right direction, but all organisations should already have such measures in place.
After weeks of damning accusations, vague threats and protests, Prime Minister Scott Morrison finally conceded on Tuesday that the culture in Parliament House may not be entirely welcoming to women, and pledged to make changes in the workplace.
The support pledged included counselling services for women and men, and a more robust, independent complaints mechanism for both staff and members of parliament. This is in addition to the previously announced review into the culture at Parliament House.
And when asked whether he would consider diversity quotas, Morrison said he has “been open to that conversation for some time”.
“Women are too afraid to call out bad behaviour for fear of losing a job or being intimidated in the workplace,” he said, while stressing that he is listening to women both in Parliament House and all over the country.
“That is not okay, and it is not their fault, it is the environment we have allowed to be created.”
As more and more stories of toxicity in parliament emerge, the conversation has been growing around workplace culture more generally, particularly in male-dominated sectors.
In parliament — as in many other professions — that workforce is also predominantly white, and of a certain age and class. The challenges faced by women are only compounded for women of further marginalised groups — women of colour, women with disabilities and trans women, for example.
Sarah Liu, founder of diversity and inclusion consultancy The Dream Collective, tells SmartCompany Morrison’s loosely laid out plans are a step in the right direction — in principle. But, she points out, he’s also committing to the bare minimum any organisation should already have in place.
Making sure there’s a safe route for women to speak up, and to be heard, about the issues they face should not be a transformational change, she notes.
“That should be the minimum standard for any employer anywhere.”
What are the consequences?
Liu believes there should be more focus on men. Something she’s working on with several clients is coaching and mentoring for the men in organisations — how are men being coached and educated?
Actually, she feels the Prime Minister himself has been on something of a journey over the past few weeks.
She would also like to see insight-driven change, considering why the workspace isn’t safe for women in the first place, and why they don’t speak up about it.
That means “more of a cultural than structural transformation”, she says.
However, there will only be long-lasting effects in parliament, and trickle-down effects into the business world, when there are consequences for doing the wrong thing.
“Is there going to be follow-through?” Liu asks. “What is the commitment?”
The risk is that, in a month or two, when this story no longer dominates the news cycle, leaders in both parliament and business will be able to sweep this conversation right back under the rug.
In the protests earlier this month, Liu recalls one woman was carrying the same placard she used 40 years ago. If the needle hasn’t moved in 40 years, why would we expect it to now?
Still, whether it’s lip service or genuine intentions, what we do have is a position from the Prime Minister, says Liu, and that’s a thing that can spur change.
“What it signals is that this is not rocket science, we just need to make a decision,” she adds.
Saying no to the status quo
This isn’t the first time a light has been shone on the issue of culture or gender diversity in startups and tech. It’s no secret this sector is dominated by white men, and the ‘tech bro’ trope lives on.
But when stories like this one dominate news feeds and airwaves, it stands to reason that leaders may be inclined to reflect on their own organisations.
Maree Beare is the founder of health management app Wanngi. At a recent event about startup funding, she felt compelled to raise the issue of the dearth of capital available for women.
Partly, she felt brave enough to do so because of the current news cycle, which meant the men in the room were more receptive to the conversation.
“At the moment, we have the men of the population with their ears open,” she tells SmartCompany.
Now, it’s up to them to take a look at their own leadership structures, their own boardrooms and their own offices, to see where the biases might lie.
Beare also says it’s also up to women to keep the conversation going. We don’t have to accept the status quo, she says. But, if momentum dies down, there’s every chance it will return.
While the cultural issues that come with a lack of diversity and inclusion in business don’t come as a surprise to Beare, or to many other women and marginalised people, the conversation has previously been “in a bubble”, Beare says.
Now, that bubble has been expanded.
“They’re finally listening, but they will only listen for a short period of time,” she adds.
“We have to continue the battle that we started,” she adds.