Women in leadership the focus on International Women’s Day

This year's theme draws attention to the pandemic and its effect on women and work

International Women’s Day 2021 highlights how the COVID-19 pandemic unequally affected women, from losing jobs to having a greater care burden. CMO examines some of the measures organisations are taking to help redress that imbalance.

International Women’s Day (IWD) is a global event on 8 March that acts as a focal point for the movement to advance women’s rights and equality. Officially, IWD was adopted by the United Nations as a formal day of recognition in 1975 and is backed by ratified standards that track programs and measure progress towards gender equality. However, private, non-UN aligned organisations have since sprung up that also recognise the day.

The gender pay gap, lack of female CEOs on ASX-listed companies, under representation of women in parliament, women’s racial inequality and the unequal impact of the pandemic all require dedicated policies, new laws and programs to work towards improving gender equality and women’s lives across the board.

RMIT lecturer at the Centre for People, Organisation and Work, Dr Meagan Tyler, noted IWD provides visibility around these issues, which is important, as organisations get behind IWD to support equality.

“Organisations can use this time to raise awareness more broadly and gain traction publicly, If done properly, it can create concrete change in organisations around tough issues of women’s equality,” Tyler told CMO.

COVID and the focus on women in leadership

This year’s official global theme is ‘Women in Leadership: Achieving an Equal Future in a COVID-19 World’ in recognition of COVID-19 impacting women and girls in profound ways and amplifying the inequalities they face every day. This year is also recognition that diverse women’s voices and experiences are central to national and global recovery plans coming out of the pandemic.

Advancing women in leadership is central to creating more profitable and productive economies, flourishing businesses and a healthier and more peaceful planet. There is a growing understanding and expectation that leadership in all facets of economic, political and social life must reflect communities; organisations miss out if 50 per cent of the talent pool - women in all their diversity - is not around decision-making tables.

Looking back on the last 12 months and the global impact of the COVID-19 crisis, it has revealed to a certain extent women’s hold on position of leadership can be fraught and even tenuous in some cases. “It has reminded us that progress is not guaranteed,” Tyler said.

Tyler sees a lot of data in a lot of areas now showing COVID has pushed women’s progress backwards, by both exposing more obvious inequality and exacerbating existing inequalities. The pressure of home schooling, caring responsibilities and women leaving the workforce all have an impact that carries on for many years and effect women’s longer-term ability to rise through the ranks to eventually obtain positions of leadership.

Chief Executive Women president, Sam Mostyn, pointed to the importance of gender equality and the true equal empowerment of women and girls as underpinning success in all domains.

“Whether that’s access to education, access to good jobs, access to capital and money, access to leadership roles - greater gender equality, we know, solves so many of the world’s greatest problems,” Mostyn said.

Credit: UN Women Australia

For oOh!media CEO, Cathy O’Connor, the pace of change around the promotion of women is too slow, especially in regard to senior leadership roles. “We need to focus more on putting in place the mentoring and support to get more women to the top positions, and generally also make sure company cultures don’t reflect values, attitudes or behaviours that can marginalise women and prevent them from getting where they should be,” she said.

oOh!media, through its oOh! Community initiative, is supporting two not-for-profit organisations, UN Women Australia and Sydney Women’s Fund, with pro bono campaigns and opportunities for its teams to engage with both organisations. It will also be sharing internally the achievements of some of its women, including employee award winners as well as nominees for external awards.

Numbers tell the real story

As a professional platform, LinkedIn has the data and analysis that reveals women’s jobs are more vulnerable and prone to business disruption than men’s. It's also seen women more adversely affected in the COVID-hit industries of retail, travel and leisure.

"Women have been disproportionally impacted due to the COVID-19 pandemic and we need to do all we can to support women in our workplace,” LinkedIn A/NZ, head of brand marketing and communications, Shiva Kumar, told CMO.

“On average, women applied to 12 per cent fewer jobs last year compared to men. Our latest Opportunity Index 2021 data showed that nearly half of all women also feel they get fewer opportunities than men [42 per cent] and feel they get lower pay than men [44 per cent]. So it’s a widespread issue that needs to be addressed with awareness and action. We have to build a supportive community for women at the workplace."

LinkedIn is launching an international brand campaign to raise awareness about issues facing women and also how they can rely on their community for support when they need it. It is also making a range of LinkedIn Learning courses covering leadership strategies for women, success strategic for women and how to become a male ally available to all members for free in March to help educate the wider professional workforce in Australia about how to support women better.  

Oracle is another organisation with programs to help support women in leadership. On IWD, it has an internal IWD campaign and website to raise awareness, create learning opportunities and highlight a full day of activities across the global organisation. Oracle started the ‘Oracle Women’s Leadership’ (OWL) program in 2006 to develop, engage and empower current and future generations of women leaders at Oracle.

“While it started out as a grassroots program, over the last 15 years it has evolved into a global program dedicated to leadership development focused on building local OWL communities and fostering strategic partnerships, both internally and externally, to provide women employees with the resources to unlock their full potential,” said Oracle, VP and regional MD A/NZ, Cherie Ryan.

Corporate support for IWD

Several other Australia and global organisations have leant their support to IWD this year, drawn from media, marketing, finance and consumer businesses. Financial wellbeing is an integral part of women’s equality; however, the pandemic has affected women’s ability to keep jobs or work sufficient hours to support themselves.

In 2021, Westpac is the Platinum Partner of UN Women Australia for International Women’s Day and has had a dedicated Women’s Markets team for over 20 years who advocate across the business for the financial wellbeing of women. Westpac director of women’s markets, Felicity Duffy, told CMO Westpac has a long history of supporting women, welcoming Australia’s first female banking customer more than 200 years ago we.

“We had the first female branch manager in Australia in 1978, were the first Australian company to introduce paid maternity leave in 1995 and became the first major bank to appoint a female CEO in 2008,” said Duffy.     

“Today, Westpac remains dedicated to supporting female customers and community members through its interactive online community for women, Ruby Connection; elevating female changemakers of the future through its Westpac Scholars Trust program; and continuing to share best practice with local and global industry peers on how to progress financial empowerment for women."  

As the Australian broadcast partner for IWD 2021, Seven West Media (SWM) will support key IWD events around Australia in the lead up to and on 5 March, three days before IWD.

“This is a natural partnership: our workforce has a 50-50 gender balance and over half of our managers are female. We’re honoured to join forces with UN Women Australia to celebrate International Women’s Day,” said SWM CEO and MD, James Warburton.

Salesforce is an official sponsor and will livestream events on 5 March 2021 as well as provide access to content to secondary students across Australia, to help inspire our next-generation of female leaders. Within its own organisation, gender equality programs also include LeanIn Circles, volunteer opportunities, Woman of the Month series, mentorship opportunities, children’s initiatives and Women in Technology programs.

“Our focus is always on improving inclusion and equality for all on the gender spectrum, to help make Salesforce the best place to work for all,” said Saleforce AVP Digital360 and exec sponsor Salesforce Women’s Network A/NZ, Jo Gaines.

As a Bronze Sponsor, Coles is inviting its team members to tune into UN Women's livestream of International Women’s Day events happening on Friday 5 March and supporting them to host their own Covid-friendly IWD events.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s has committed to increasing representation of women in leadership roles globally to 45 per cent by the end of 2025.

“This builds on our 2019 Gender strategy to improve the representation of women at all levels of the company by 2023, while also achieving gender equality in career advancement and championing the impact of women on the business,” a spokesperson told CMO.

And over at HubSpot, IWD is both a chance to recognise women’s achievements and a call to action to accelerate gender parity around the world.

“International Women’s Day is a reminder of everything that has been done to get us where we are now, and that there is still much more that needs to be done to achieve gender equality,” HubSpot head of marketing A/NZ, Kat Warboys, added.

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