Advisory Board: It’s not about snapping back to pre-pandemic norms

The months since the pandemic hit Australia have seen women’s workforce participation shrink for the first time in years. Concerted action and a gender lens are needed in policy and practice to stem the erosion and build a fairer future, according to discussion at the latest WLA Advisory Board meeting. 

The crisis has led many organisations to cut their diversity and women’s leadership efforts. At the same time, recent cases of sexual harassment in blue chip companies show many workplaces remain dangerous environments for women. 

Mobilising evidence and using the strength of collaboration – across government, academia, business, and in communities – is now crucial to addressing the crisis for women in this country, the board agreed. 

Planning how WLA can provide that information and support most effectively in the future was another core topic at the meeting. With job losses, domestic violence and mental health issues rising dramatically, safety and support have also emerged as key themes at the WLA symposiums this year.

At a macro level, the impact of the last few months has been very slowly gaining government recognition of the need for a gender lens on programs and social infrastructure.

Board members pointed out that talking to government about reform and developing new policy settings is a priority.

It’s not about snapping back to pre-pandemic norms but snapping forward - and the Snap Forward Feminist Policy Network has been established to ensure a coalition works on these steps, the board added.

There’s a lack of women at the table and we’re paying the price for that with programs and policies that fail to take women’s needs into account. More examples were needed of the difference women’s leadership makes.

With some attention being paid to women world leaders such as Angela Merkel and Jacinda Adern, there is an opportunity to develop a strong rationale for women’s leadership which now needs to be clearly seen and its value articulated, the board agreed. 

Another broad area ripe for a major overhaul is childcare.  As one board member pointed out, paradoxically there has been no gender lens applied to the current system, which is not working or supporting women.  Looking at ways to drive policy around it is essential.

On a day to day basis, there was clear evidence of areas that are crying out to be addressed in such tough times. 

The pressure of caring for and schooling children at home is forcing women to cut their hours to cope. One board member noted that in her organisation, the majority of employees asking for reduced hours were women.

There’s evidence the pressure to work differently and more from home potentially has a big downside for women. More women have less choice about returning to the workplace and can end up finding themselves further excluded from dynamics and opportunities.

Domestic violence issues are also impacting women, and mental health issues are taking a toll on many. 

For most women attending WLA events this year, the grind of coping with daily casual sexism and discrimination remains a problem. There were often reported problems with meetings and interruptions, or failing to have their input recognised or rewarded. 

Participants were revealing much more vulnerability and sharing stories because they were in a psychologically ‘safe space’ Suzi Finkelstein said. Casual sexism is clearly still a big problem, with tactics and advice in demand from attendees.

Particular challenges in the current environment include online meetings and communications. While the board heard that even a CEO has less cut through in Zoom meetings, it was also clear that women at the symposiums felt online can be a fairer forum in other ways.

The discussion also covered how the crisis was affecting marginalized groups. 

According to one member, it has been a mixed bag for Indigenous employees: some entrepreneurs and women accessing micro financing are not faring too badly. 

Some of this has to do with congregating in certain sectors, mainly mining, construction and infrastructure where there have not been as many job losses, and some of these sectors are scaling up, for example domestic tourism.

Another board member noticed that there is still an appetite for networking and further education. Demand for online events and mentoring has been consistent and some members are looking at upgrading their skills or studying to improve their employment prospects.

Particular areas to target include providing more information about superannuation as early access is a topical issue for women. Social media platforms can be utilised too – and help in providing information on sexual harassment from experts like Kate Eastman QC and Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins. 

Some key suggested actions following the board meeting include: 

  • Targeting every State Minister responsible for women and equip them with the facts, and ask them what they are doing in these key areas. Men in related government roles should also be included and accountable in this.
  • Further collaboration between WLA and other industry, government and not for profit organisations with aligned values and remits. Sharing of expertise is critical at this time. 
  • Correcting misinformation and challenging assumptions and expectations around traditional gender roles. 
  • Finding ways to highlight the efficacy and extraordinary benefits of women leaders, at times like this and also in more general settings. 


A quick note: Advisory Board member Adam Fennessy has been appointed the Victorian Public Sector Commissioner and took up his new role in July. Adam spent 2 decades in the Victorian public sector before joining EY as a partner in 2017. He is a Male Champion of Change and a strong advocate for diversity and fairer workplace practices.  

Adam joined the AB late last year and provided valuable insights and practical advice on the work that can be done to transform workplaces. Unfortunately his new position means he will no longer be able to sit on the Advisory Board but he continues to support the work of WLA.