The Administrator's speech at the International Women's Day Breakfast hosted by the National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame in Alice Springs
Distinguished guests. Ladies and Gentlemen.
I find the theme of International Women’s Day this year – “Balance for Better” both thought-provoking and promising. Three simple words, which offer many layers to explore.
Of course there is the theme of improvement. But what does “better” really mean? More opportunity? More life, or work satisfaction? More economic growth? And “balance” itself can have so many meanings in so many situations. Professionally, at home, at school. In industry and in sport.
I think it is safe to say that “balance for better” isn’t a simple topic. Which I think is what makes it so exciting.
When thinking about this talk, I came across an old Chinese proverb which says, “A man with one chopstick goes hungry”. At first it seems obvious, doesn’t it? If you only have one chopstick it would make eating food rather difficult! But why?
It is the balance of the two chopsticks that enables us to grab the food in order to eat it.
The proverb reminds us that to succeed in our life we need to find a balance between all the important elements to facilitate moving forward. And of course this can also be applied to organisations, to schools and across all sectors.
If only one gender is represented on a company board, if we only have female teachers, if we only teach one subject or use one type of fuel to generate electricity we have an imbalanced approach that creates inequality, a closed mindset and ultimately instability.
Why does balance make things better?
Let’s all stand up. Now, pick something to fix your eyes on, raise your arms, and lift one foot a little off the floor. Ok, now stay there, keeping one foot lifted. Cast your mind down to your other foot that is on the floor. What’s happening there? Is it wobbling around a bit? Compensating for being the only foot on solid ground right now? What about the rest of your body? Is your leg shaking a bit? Perhaps your hips are moving to keep you stable? What about your arms? Your head? Ok, you can put it down now! (And you can sit down.)
Let’s think about all those elements working together to achieve the aim of remaining standing, rather than falling down.
If you were relying only on the skeletal structure of your foot, would it have worked? What about if none of the muscles in your legs had come to the party.
Would just moving your arms around have kept you standing as effectively?
For me, effective balance is when a collection of different elements work together, each contributing in their own way to achieve something. Whether that’s a board making well-informed decisions in the best interests of an organisation, or partners at home contributing to household chores to ensure both parties can pursue the work, hobbies or study that is important to them.
To do anything in the most effective way possible, we need to actively work to achieve as much balance among as many integral factors as possible.
How many of you are parents? And how many of you work as well as being a parent? How many of you manage employees, as well as managing a home?
Raise your hands if you agree that all of these things are made easier with the input of others.
Particularly those with diverse experiences, knowledge and ideas to contribute.
So, how do we increase this balance, and ensure diversity and appropriate female representation to improve organisational, professional and personal performance? And what impact could this have?
Studies by the United Nations in recent years estimate that companies with three or more women in senior leadership and management functions tend to score higher in all aspects of organisational effectiveness. The companies run more efficiently. They are more successful. They achieve better results, contributing more positively to the economy.
In terms of education, the United Nations has shown that on average, each year of secondary school boosts a girl’s future earning power by approximately 20 percent.
And increasing women’s earning potential has far-reaching consequences.
The Borgen Project in the United States is a campaign to fight global poverty. Their studies have shown that globally when women have more control over family resources, spending patterns tend to benefit children. And better access to education and health for women also leads to better outcomes for children.
Which in turn means that each generation of children benefits from increasingly better – and more balanced – outcomes between genders. Ultimately enhancing the growth prospects of the country – for everyone.
I think we would all agree that the drive towards balance needs to begin from birth. Loved, supported and appreciated young people grow into confident, ambitious and respectful adults.
Our children are our most precious commodity, and they are our future leaders.
The wonderful people who educate and influence these future leaders are ultimately doing the most important job of all.
I think it is also important to remember that our world moves quickly. We live in a time of rapid technological change and improvement. Older people, or those who have taken maternity leave, or those that may not have the economic or other means to stay abreast of technological developments can easily find themselves left behind.
Here, too, balance is important. The need to balance the need to move forward with the need to ensure you are bringing everyone along for the ride. And to remember that large scale decisions, on an international, national or even organisational level inevitably come home to roost and affect individuals.
Bringing people along increases confidence. And ensures their ability to continue to play their role in the team, the organisation and the community.
It is worth bearing in mind though that in my experience, balance in itself really isn’t enough.
For diversity to bring its deepest benefits, even when a women has her position in senior management, there needs to be a sense of psychological safety for women to voice their ideas to influence decision-making. For this reason, and many others, I feel that it is increasingly important to call out tokenism.
While we are striving for a balance of representation across all levels of society, it is so important that individuals are not put into positions only to increase female representation. In my experience this can have the opposite of the desired effect.
We need to avoid devaluing the achievements of women who have truly earned their place at the table through damaging misconceptions such as “well she only got that role because she’s a woman”. Damaging the respect for and confidence in women who earn their positions affects our ability to really make a difference.
And while maintaining balance is important, I think it is also vital to recognise that in any situation, but particularly in the boardroom, disagreements, challenges to our worldviews and differences in approach can provide us with great opportunities for learning and growth. After all, we do not live in an ideal world. We need new ideas and approaches to move forward.
Challenging situations are the norm, and it is important for us to treat them as learning experiences rather than roadblocks.
At the end of the day, part of organically increasing representation really is up to us, as women. To have the confidence to put our hands up, step forward and take on that new role or promotion. Or to put ourselves in line for that job vacancy.
Studies have identified that men are 60 percent more likely to apply for a role where they do not meet all the selection criteria than women. Some suggest that this is due to men generally having more confidence. Others say that perhaps women have a greater fear of failure.
Either way, I think it’s important to make a habit of saying yes. Because we only increase our skills and confidence by putting ourselves out there and stretching ourselves.
Yes it takes courage, and we might have to put quite a bit more effort in. But trust me, it’s worth it!
It’s worth it not just for us and our self-worth, but also good for our families. I believe that working women not only strengthen the economic security of a household but also provide important role models for our children and our community, the organisations we work for, and the economy as a whole.
Even now I still live by my father’s sage advice to me as a teenager: “just put one foot in front of the other and meet things head on”. I assure you, it has served me well!
As women, there is so much we can do right now to push towards better balance. And of course it is not just about us.
It is about the men that join us in the journey. And the girls and boys, young women and men that we can influence along the way.
I encourage you to think. Who are we now? Where are we in our life and career journeys? And how can we shape ourselves to be who and where we want to be in the future?
What example can we set? What support can we offer – and seek – to help ourselves and others to make the most out of every single opportunity?
Let us all resolve to take care of ourselves and others. It is so important to take care of ourselves – our bodies and our mental health.
Support yourself! Be your own biggest fan. Self-talk is so powerful.
And support others. We gain strength as a group, working as a team to promote each other. We are so much more powerful as a whole than any of us are individually.
And as a team we can do much to help each other achieve that all-important balance in our personal lives, so we can work towards achieving balance on a much larger scale.
This is an exciting time. I encourage you to make the most of it.
Go well. And good luck!