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Why courage is key to accelerating gender equality

Lessons from Australia’s Sport leaders

As the NY times reported recently  (https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2019/02/18/sports/rugby/18reuters-sport-australia-equality.html), Australia’s Male Champions of Change for Sport have declared closing the gender pay gap in their industry a top priority. In a sport -loving (some say obsessed) nation, this gets attention. And given the existing pay gap of up to 30% across Australian sporting codes, it’s a bold and possibly risky move for those leaders who have signed up. Yet it seems that Australian Sport leaders aren’t afraid to publicly commit to gender equality, notwithstanding the personal vulnerability this may involve. 

An individual example of this can be seen in Tom Harley, the CEO of one of Australia’s most successful Australian Rules Football Club, the Sydney Swans. Tom was the first of his peer group to get behind the 360 Inclusive Leadership Pledge, a global initiative in support of International Women’s Day.  And, he had no hesitation in going public about his undertaking. In his characteristically straight up, yet humble manner, Tom noted:

“If putting my name to the Pledge helps raise awareness of the need to step up as leaders and drive the cultural change towards equality in our organisations, then I’m all for it

In signing up to the Pledge, Tom and other leaders were also acknowledging the importance of inclusive leadership capability as a key tool in progressing a level playing field for all. Moreover, their participation in the Pledge is recognition of the fact that most leaders have little real insight into how inclusively they lead – at best, their assessment is based on a crude self appraisal which is notoriously flawed for being (inevitably) generous.  As one leader put it:

“Let’s be honest, few of us have the degree of self awareness required to critique ourselves in a meaningful way – and even if we do, the fact that inclusion is in the eyes of the beholder means that we’ll always need to reality test our assessment with that of the people we’re trying to include.”

While Tom and his peers who have signed up to the 360 Inclusive Leadership Pledge don’t know what they’ll find in terms of their strengths, or more disconcertingly, their gaps, they’re pressing ahead anyway. Why? Because they know that the insights, however unsettling, will be invaluable to them as they continue to pursue equality within their organisations.

So, what lessons can we take from the leaders of Australia’s Sporting institutions on how to accelerate gender equality in business, government and society at large? It is simply this: be fearless. Leaders who commit openly to gender equality send a powerful message about its importance – their status and personal brand attracts the spotlight to the prevailing inequality in ways that other measures cannot. But in doing so, they also draw the spotlight on themselves, potentially attracting undue scrutiny of their own efforts to progress gender equality.

Moreover, in seeking feedback on how inclusively they lead from the people they actually lead, they are inviting a level of critique that for some may be brutal. And yet they forge ahead, courageous in their pursuit of fair play. A lot like the sportsmen and sportswomen they ultimately represent.

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