Leadership | Diversity | Inclusion

Never underestimate the power of people to demand gender equality: the Hon. Helen Coonan

“There’s a very interesting movement that’s happening, and that is the interest of shareholders in the top 200 listed companies,” former Federal Senator, Cabinet Minister and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, and JP Morgan Advisory Council member, the Hon. Helen Coonan, said at a CEDA event in Sydney.

“The proxy advisers are now asking, ‘where are your women, where are your diversity policies, who’s on your board?’," she said. 

“I think often a democratically driven bottom-up kind of momentum can have as much effect as someone at the top trying to push it down.

“I would never underestimate the power of people to demand this of our corporate people.”  

Also speaking at the event, Korn Ferry Executive Chairman Australasia, Tourism and Transport Forum Chairman and Business Council of Australia former Chief Executive Officer, Katie Lahey, said: “It’s important that men take a role in this.”

“Often we get them engaged when we start to push the business case,” she said.

“The conversation does change when it moves from women talking about women’s issues – seeming to be constantly whinging about our lot in life – to men taking it up as a serious business issue.”

Ms Lahey said that all companies are learning to manage in a slow growth economy.

“When you’re in slow growth, you need smart people. And if we’re letting half of our talent pool remain undiscovered, we’re not doing our jobs properly,” she said.

“I think this is a fantastic era for women if we grab it because we know that we’re going into an ageing, shrinking workforce.

“We’re going to need everybody that has the capacity to be in the workforce to be in the workforce and our organisations should be looking at ways to bring women in, encourage them, promote them, and move them up the organisation.

“We cannot afford to waste a single bit of brain power.

“Digging deeper to find the females is important. If we are reluctant to put ourselves forward, it is a responsibility of a manager to go and find those women and encourage them.”

Monash College Chair, Monash University Deputy Chancellor and former Chief Commissioner of the Victorian Police Force, Dr Christine Nixon APM, suggested looking at the systems in place in organisations.

“One of the changes that happened in the New South Wales (NSW) police was to look at what recruitment and hiring and promotion systems we had,” she said.

“We changed the systems we used to figure out that three people sitting behind a table making a choice was not the most effective or efficient process to make choices. 

“It certainly made a difference for NSW.”

Former Deputy Premier of NSW and former NSW Minister, the Hon. Carmel Tebbutt, said: “We have to bite the bullet and sometimes it requires something as clear as a rule change and sanctions to force change to happen.”

On the confidence gap, Ms Tebbutt said women do always under-judge their performance.

“They always think they’ve done more poorly than what they have and men always think they’ve done better than what they have, and that’s backed up by research,” she said.

“We really have to be able to empower women.

“It does go back to that whole process of how we’re raising girls to be stronger and to speak up.

“I think that change is starting to happen. I see it now with younger women who just have so much confidence and savviness that I didn’t see 20 years ago.

“We have to be vigilant about the experiences we give girls and raising them to take their place at the table.”


This event launched the publication, CEDA’s Top 10 Speeches: Women in Leadership 2010–2015. Click here to learn more about the publication.