Think equality starts at work? Think Again.

It’s great to see the conversation around equality evolve. But we need to do more than talk about it.

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This year’s International Women’s Day theme, #EachforEqual, resonated strongly with me on a personal and professional level. Now more than ever, we are seeing business leaders around the world become more vocal about the importance of gender equality and what their organisations are doing to move the needle. 

Organisational efforts to achieve gender equality and pay parity are paramount to the growth, competitiveness and the future-readiness of businesses and economies worldwide.

While business leaders generally understand this, better execution is needed. This is evidenced in Mercer’s latest When Women Thrive report, where we found even with favourable talent flows, projections indicate it will take ten years to increase female leadership representation by just three percent.

Why? Focusing solely on gender equality in the workplace is like putting the cart before the horse. To address systemic shortcomings, we must take a holistic approach and identify how to better support girls in order to provide them with equal access to opportunities as both girls and later, women.

Much of our success and setbacks later in life can be traced back to the role models we had growing up.

As children, we observe everything around us, including the way the adults in our lives react to stress, overcome a challenge, respond to conflict, etc. Often, we are sent signals we are unable to comprehend until many years later when we see them manifest as behaviours in our adult lives.

My own story is a reflection of foundations set during my formatives years. It wasn’t that long ago I realised just how entrepreneurial my parents were and the lasting impression their work ethic had on me, my brother and two sisters. Growing up in Sydney, Australia, my father was a long-haul aviator, meaning he was gone for up to 16-days at a time (long before the non-stop long haul flights we’re used to today!). While Dad was working, my Mum raised the four of us, in addition to running a successful haberdashery business.

Through watching Mum manage everything with a touch of grace and a truckload of grit, she influenced the four of us in a unique and long-lasting way. We each started our careers in financial services, where the hours were long and the notion of work-life balance was very limited. While my brother and I stuck with our chosen field, my sisters moved on to find lasting success in a family business while raising their own children.

My mother, without realising, left a lasting impression on us by doing what she needed to do. It’s a testament to the amplification our behaviours have on those around us and was definitely not lost on me as my wife and I raised our two sons and daughter.

Now, the legacy and investment continues as our eldest son and his partner raise their daughter – our first grandchild!  

It’s been documented gender inequality starts at birth and numerous studies have found having a positive role model in childhood affects our success as adults. For example, a study by the University of Michigan found mothers who finished high school or college were more likely to raise kids who did the same. Harvard Business School found adult daughters of employed mothers were 16% more likely to hold supervisory responsibility in their jobs.

While many organisations have made strides in promoting and supporting initiatives and programs that speak to women’s unique needs in the workplace, if this inequality begins at birth, we need to collectively be aware of who’s watching – not only what we say and how we say it but what we do – to ensure all women have an equal chance at success. 

I challenge business leaders everywhere to help make lives brighter, by looking inward to examine what they are doing to enable a more equal future – not only for the women on their professional teams, but for the women in their personal lives, and for the girls who will soon join our future workforce. Let’s embrace #EachforEqual and focus the year on not only promoting equality in the workplace but also at home, in our communities and in our schools. 

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