All men (and women) were not created equal
True equality is impossible. We are not born equal, and we cannot be made equal.
But equal opportunity for all is a noble and realistic goal.
In a fairly short time – say, a century – women’s position in society has altered dramatically. This time one hundred years ago women had few rights. They were second-class citizens.
In this more enlightened age much of the Western world has come to realise the error of their ways, and to embrace the economic, intellectual, spiritual and cultural contributions of women.
And yet. Women are still poorly represented in positions of power, in the halls of Parliament, on the boards of companies. The number of women on ASX 200 boards hovers around 10 per cent, and despite having a female Prime Minister, Governor General and a scattering of Premiers, women are still outnumbered in Government and in Opposition.
Despite all the legal protections against discrimination, something is holding women back.
We need to work out what that is.
On the one hand, it seems possible that this is just a time lag. Things have changed so rapidly in such a short time, that maybe those changes are still filtering through to the last niches of society.
In which case, we only need to ensure we are safeguarding the ideals of anti-discrimination and in time all will be well.
But on the other hand, many of Australia’s best and brightest (male and female) minds say the problem is deeper than that, that something more insidious is blocking women’s paths.
And they say that unless we enforce a type of equality – in the form of quotas – women will never catch up and wield the sort of power that men can.
So recently we saw an increased interest in the idea of quotas for women on company boards and in Parliament.
Opposition frontbencher Joe Hockey wants enforced quotas to ensure 30 per cent of board positions are held by women. Governor General Quentin Bryce is in favour of quotas.
Others, including Minister for the Status of Women Kate Ellis, say they are ‘open’ to the idea, or see them as an absolute last resort.
We have plenty of options before we need to look for a last resort.
Both the public and the private sector need to provide environments where anyone, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, any disabilities, sexual orientation or other personal attributes can rise on merit.
This will take flexible workplaces, an understanding management style that takes full advantage of available technology, and a true understanding by financial decision makers of the economic benefits of taking care of their staff.
It might mean crèches and family-friendly working hours, or the ability to work from home.
But this must be broadened beyond being a sop to young mothers, and become a gender blind process.
So a father can spend time with a child, or a single woman care for an ageing parent, or an older man take better care of his health, or a gay woman care for a sick partner.
With rock-bottom unemployment and skills shortages across industries, companies must realise that this is not pandering to a politically correct minority, but a way to boost staff attraction, retention – and most importantly, loyalty.
It is both a humanistic and economic argument.
This column was published in today’s Advertiser.
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