Month: September 2017

by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

One swallow does not a summer make

One bird in a blue sky isn’t a herald of fine summer days. One data point doesn’t predict a trend. Similarly, when there’s only one woman on a board, council or committee, this results in a lack of diversity of views being brought to the table and signals the need for a diversity strategy across the organisation.

To improve reputation and performance, an organisation needs to have at least three women on the decision-making board so that diversity is not viewed as exotic, tokenistic or ‘we’ve now ticked that box’. That takes a commitment to diversity and inclusion, from the top down. Without the driving force of an active diversity strategy, it can be difficult for an organisation to shift its reputation from being a dinosaur, stuck in the past to one that is an inclusive, dynamic and modern workplace.

One may be worse than none

The Australian Institute of Company Directors has recently released their quarterly gender diversity report which monitors the levels of women on boards of ASX200 companies. Disappointingly, the rate of women appointed to these boards fallen (from 44% in 2016 to 30% in 2017). One-third of companies have only one woman on the board, 11 have none.

At a local government level in Victoria, the situation is similarly precarious with 17% (13) councils having only one woman elected, highlighting the precarious state of advancement in female representation at a political level. Who remembers the previous Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s one-woman only Ministry when he was elected in 2013? We all know of committees, sports clubs and community organisations with barely any women in decision-making roles.

Boards with no woman have rightly been criticised as dinosaurs by the likes of AICD Chair Elizabeth Proust. Having no or one-woman only on a board, council or committee is a signal that perhaps the workplace isn’t fair and as inclusive as it could be. Lone women are at risk of being isolated and marginalised and having their skills, experience ignored.

Where there is only one woman, it’s almost as bad as having no women as it can minimise the necessary scrutiny needed of diversity in board appointments. It allows organisations to ‘get by’ with a veneer of change, but the fundamental shift towards equality obviously hasn’t happened.

Why 3 is a critical number

Research by the Harvard Business Review found that having at least three women on boards provided a critical tipping point for performance and how women were perceived. At this level:

“women tend to be regarded by other board members not as “female directors” but simply as directors, and they don’t report being isolated or ignored.. They feel more like one of the team, with their opinions valued beyond being the lone voice or a token towards gender’.

The report went on to say that with a critical mass of women directors they noticed three specific contributions to boards that men were less likely to make:

  • Women broadened discussions to better represent the concerns of a wide set of stakeholders, including employees, customers, and the community at large.
  • Women could be more dogged than men in pursuing answers to difficult questions
  • Women tended to bring a more collaborative approach to leadership, which improved communication among directors, the board and management.

When diversity becomes the ‘new normal’

When there is no woman on the board or just one woman on a Council or committee, it’s a red flag that a gender equality strategy is needed to address the invisible barriers to the fuller participation of women. With a strategy in place to deliver sustainable change, the benefits women bring to boards and workplaces can really start to flow.

The flow on effect of having more women on boards is that anyone other than an ‘old white male’ starts to become ‘normal’ too. This can result in the inclusion of talented people from different cultural backgrounds, ability, age and race, as part of a diverse board.

It’s when the lone bird turns into a flock, that we can be sure summer is on its way.

Ruth McGowan OAM works as a consultant, trainer and mentor on gender equality. She is passionate about working with people in workplaces and our communities to deliver real change in gender equality. 

by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

Get that gal a gong!

“She deserves a medal”. How many times have you heard this about an amazing woman who’s working tirelessly in her community or profession? Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself about a woman you know, and her dedicated service. But have you ever done anything about actually getting a medal for her; before it’s too late?

Every year, thousands of outstanding Australian women are missing out on national recognition and gratitude for their incredible work. Although many don’t expect a reward, it’s just another way the work women do remains invisible. It’s not fair – but you can change this. Nominate a woman for a national award here and tap into the support provided through Honour a Woman Facebook page.

National awards; women are missing out

Nationally we have the Australian Honours and Awards system, affectionally known as ‘The Gongs’. These awards recognise people who have made a significant difference to our nation, with recipients honoured twice a year from all parts of Australia and all walks of life. They get a medal and can then put letters after their names, of AC, AO, AM, and OAM.

The problem is, although the honours are going to good people, deserving people, it’s mainly older, white men who are getting the medals. In fact, 70% of the swag, and it’s getting worse. According to Our Community’s Advancing Women report, after 42 years of awards, women are receiving even fewer in recent years.  Aboriginals and people from culturally linguistic diverse backgrounds also don’t receive their fair share of recognition. In the name of fairness, this situation has got to change.


Pin a medal on her chest

Scanning the newspapers honours list on Australia Day and the Queen’s birthday to see who has ‘got a gong’, is a dispiriting task. Male after male after male, especially at the higher levels of awards. Sure, they’ve earned it, but women of merit are missing out. It doesn’t have to be this way.

We all know amazing women from a range of backgrounds who are contributing outstanding service to our country; service that is above and beyond their paid job. Women like the incredible Connie Johnson who, with her brother Samuel Johnson, of Love Your Sister charity was recently awarded an Order of Australia Medal by the Governor General for her amazing contribution to raising funds for breast cancer research.

You probably know a woman who is doing outstanding work in her community, profession or public life. It may even be your mother, or a sister, auntie, niece or female colleague or neighbour. You may also know of exceptional service by people from Aboriginal and multicultural communities. But they probably haven’t yet been recognised. Why? Maybe it’s just because you haven’t thought to nominate them……

Fill in that form

Our national awards are democratic. Any individual or group can nominate an Australian citizen for a medal. All it takes is for you to fill out the nomination form, on the Governor Generals website. It’s sort of like completing an assignment or a grant application – the only requirement is that you keep it confidential from her. You need to fill in her bio, find the details of a few referees and then fill out a couple of pages detailing of her outstanding achievements. That’s it. Then submit!

Do it before it’s too late

One day you may have to write an obituary for an outstanding woman in your life. Although sad, it’s likely to be the last chance to publicly recognise her exceptional service. Too many women who have had outstanding lives, careers and achievements miss out on the public recognition of a national award. It’s not fair and it’s keeping the achievements of these incredible role models invisible to the rest of the world.

For many of us, it will be much easier to fill in a nomination form for a medal, than to write an obituary (having done both myself, a few times). Before it gets too late, will you nominate an incredible woman in your life and ‘get the gal a gong’ so she can put a medal on her chest?

Fill in the form here: Governor General’s website Join the Facebook group here:  Honour A Woman and help us achieve 50:50 gender balance in the Honours by the year 2020.

Ruth McGowan OAM received an Order of Australia in 2014 for community service. She believes in passing it on, and in 2017, she co-founded Honour A Woman movement with Dr Elizabeth Hartnell-Young and Carol Kiernan to support Australians to nominate a woman for an Australian Honour

by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

The invisible woman…and how she’s fighting back

We seek her here, we seek her there, we seek her everywhere ……that damned, elusive Pimpernel

From the Scarlet Pimpernel/Emma Orczy (sic; pronoun change)


“They don’t even notice what they’re doing, do they?” My colleague leaned over and whispered to me as we both sat in the auditorium waiting for the conference panel of all-male speakers to begin. She didn’t bother to sit through the rest of the session and soon left, fed up with yet another ‘dude-fest’ of presenters.

Where is she?

In 2017, it seems we’re hearing the language of inclusiveness everywhere; ‘diversity and inclusion’, ‘gender balance’, ‘equity and equality’; supported by a growing acknowledgment of the importance of diversity to an organisation’s bottom line.

So, it’s still puzzling that some event organisers can’t find a diverse view and break down gender barriers at the same time. Their actions suggest they think that women’s perspectives aren’t relevant or our voices are not important.

I am passionate about improving gender equality in local government. So, it was particularly disappointing to see the National General Assembly (NGA) of Local Government present some all-male panels in June this year. There are many incredible women in local government. It’s not that hard to find exceptional speakers, particularly given Australia’s local government workforce is composed of 46% of female employees.

Tweet, June 2017 National General Assembly (NGA) of Local Government

When the voices, stories, and experiences of women are invisible I want to shout GO FIND THE WOMEN!  All-male, ‘dude-fest’ panels continue to deny women the opportunity to share our experiences and expertise. Put some women on the panel and I’m listening more intently to the diverse views – as are many others.

Elusive no more

There are moves for women to fight the unconscious biases that make us invisible in some areas. Female activists, social-media warriors, enlightened organisations and male champions are all working to directly address unconscious biases and processes that keep women invisible. Some examples of projects profiling and celebrating incredible women include Women in STEMMInvisible Farmer project#CelebratingWomenBroad Agenda and Honour A Woman (the last, a movement I co-founded).

Making invisible; visible

Actions to address systematic barriers to women’s participation on panels, such as through the Male Champions of Change Panel Pledge are changing perceptions. What was once acceptable – even in the local government sector where only 11% of CEOs are women – is now being called out. When photos of the all-male panels at #NGA17 were tweeted, a robust debate ensued, calling out the lack of diversity. As a result, I’d like to think ALGA Board Members (most of whom are men) may have taken the panel pledge before next years event.

Next time you attend a panel dominated by all men, you might want to refer the organisers to the panel pledge. Or, if needing some humour, try the hilarious Female Conference Speakers Panel Bingo, in response to those outrageous excuses for not having more women speakers.

In 2017, women are incredible, not elusive. It doesn’t take a special magic trick to make the invisible; visible. Just a bit of effort. If you look you will see women here, women there; in fact, women are everywhere.

Ruth McGowan OAM works as a consultant, trainer, and mentor on gender equity. She is passionate about working with people in workplaces and communities to deliver positive change. If you’re looking for a speaker, she’s also available for panels and keynotes 😊
by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

Don’t get mad…. get elected

It was the first time I’d ever been in the chamber of my local council. As a disgruntled resident, I was standing up to speak on behalf of my community, against a planning application. As I argued against the unsuitable proposal, I looked at the table of decision makers in front of me. Unbelievably, every one of the nine councillors was a man. So was the CEO and the four Directors. It was a sea of suits. Fourteen men; all making decisions on my community’s future and not a woman in sight.

With forceful arguments that evening in the chamber, our community won that planning battle. A few weeks later I met the Mayor down the street, and queried him “How can you blokes make good decisions for our community when there are no women councillors”? His reply galvanised me; “We want more women councillors, but they never stand”.

I decided then, that at my next local government elections, I would ‘Lean In’ and stand for council.

As chance would have it, a by-election was soon announced for my local ward. I nominated, campaigned hard and got elected. Yay! But now, it was me and 13 blokes around that council chamber. At times, it was tough being the only woman. But I loved it and successfully juggled my councillor role with raising a family of three with the support of my husband, while sustaining my career and volunteer roles. I became passionate about encouraging and supporting more women to stand for council. The following election, four women got elected and my local council now wins awards for its gender equality initiatives.

Women councillors to the rescue

It’s no secret that Australians are disenchanted with politics. An ANU survey this year found three in four Australians agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “I am disillusioned with politics in this country.”[i]

The response to this disillusionment is to get more women leaders into politics, starting with local government. Increasingly women are looking around their council chambers and thinking to themselves “I can do a better job than him”. The upside of this is that more female candidates are being elected as local councillors, from a range of diverse backgrounds. Grandmothers, career women, mums, sole parents, sisters, daughters, female business owners, aunties, sassy young women …. a fantastic variety of women from the more than 500 local councils across our nation representing all walks of life. Women just like you or your wife, mother, daughter, sister, colleague.

Ordinary women, doing an extra-ordinary thing and becoming a politician.

Last October, the Victorian council elections saw a record number of 243 women, elected as councillors (38% of total councillors). When you compare this figure to only 29% women in the 45th Federal Parliament and 36% in Victorian State Parliament, local government is a place for women to shine.  These women are bringing diverse voices to decision making and reflecting the broader needs of the community.

Think globally; act locally

Many of us sigh when we think about the state of politics in Australia. However, I believe that if we want to change things, we need more women to become politicians. Join me to stop the slide into deeper cynicism about politics, starting with your local council. Reach out to women leaders in your community and support them to consider standing for council. Or, if you’re a woman, think about standing yourself. Don’t just get mad; get elected!

For more information on services Ruth provides in supporting women in local government see


by Ruth McGowan Ruth McGowan No Comments

Why gender training is failing … and 3 ways to fix it

We have a problem with gender

It’s hard to believe in 2017, but in the past 20 years the gender pay gap in Australia has barely moved and is rusted on at 16%. Each week women take home $260 less pay than men. That translates to a lost ‘cash splash’ on six, Gold Class movie tickets, or, with $13,500 less in her annual pay-check, that could have been a first class return flight from Melbourne to London. And, over her lifetime, a house. The gender pay gap is just another insidious barrier to gender equity which is not budging.

Why aren’t things changing? Australia’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency points to the fact that we have a highly gender-segregated workforce, with an unequal distribution of men and women in various occupations and industries (e.g. think of the numbers of women in administration compared to mining). Other factors include women having more carer responsibilities, both child care and elderly parent care, as well as reduced opportunities for flexible working conditions which may keep them out of better paid jobs. Add to this traditional gender roles, rigid stereotypes and even parental expectations which influence the subjects that boys and girls study at school and uni, which ultimately affects their career choices. Yes, we have a problem.

Watch for ‘gender fatigue’

Many companies and organisations are investing in gender equity programs to try to address inequality in their organisations. They know that reducing gender inequity is the right thing to do and leads to a more inclusive and fair society. They also know it’s the smart thing to do with KPMG research showing companies with women on their boards achieved higher revenue growth, profitability and shareholder returns than those without.[1]

Recently I’ve been conducting research for the Victorian government into gender equity programs and exploring what makes good practice.  I’ve noticed that many organisations are grappling with the best ways to address gender imbalance.

However, while the good news is that many are conscious of the problems of gender inequality and have a desire to solve it, unfortunately there’s a risk of ‘gender fatigue’ setting in, as frustration grows because of the slow rate of change. “We’ve done the training but nothings changing”.

There is a growing realisation that maybe organisational-wide training on gender and diversity has been focussed on the wrong places. To deliver meaningful and lasting change on equality and for organisations to get a return on invested funds and effort, some things need to change.

3 ways to redesign training in gender equality

  • We need to move away from a ‘tick ‘n flick’ type of approach. Too often staff are required to attend something like an hour-long ‘understanding gender’ workshop and that’s it. Box ticked. Move on. However, it’s not enough to just raise awareness about unconscious bias, ingrained stereotypes or gender inequality. Action must follow, targets and goals set, and they must be measured, reported and celebrated.
  • Training on gender equity can’t be a ‘man-bashing’ exercise. Men want to solve this problem too. They want to build families, workplaces and communities where gender equality is the norm. Many blokes may have mum who’s missed out on the benefits of feminism, or a smart wife who calls out sexist crap or sassy daughters who they want to see get ahead in their careers. Personally, they may also want to break free from toxic stereotypes of masculinity or advocate for flexibility in their workplace to get more, hands-on father time. Gender equity is actually a business issue, not a women’s issue. Involving the other half of the population for their ideas, action and advocacy makes sense in the drive for solutions.
  • Avoid an off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all approach to training. Every organisation will have their own barriers to gender equality and will need to do the work to identify what’s blocking equality. Companies will have particular priorities about what to address and in what order. And all workplaces will have diverse staff who can be engaged to develop unique solutions and the commitment to real change. There are plenty of good tools, templates and checklists available on gender equity. However, training works best when it is specifically tailored to the needs of an organisation and their situation.

Yes, we do have a problem around gender equality in Australia. Redesigning and delivering focussed, collaborative and tailored training is part of the solution.

Ruth McGowan OAM works as a consultant, trainer and mentor on gender equality. She is passionate about working with people in workplaces and communities to deliver real change in gender equality.


(Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash)