Systematiq’s Women In Industry panel discussion and networking event, held in Melbourne on July 14th brought to light experiences from women across the Defence, Rail, Logistics and STEM related industries, and was an opportunity to voice shared stories and ask a range of questions from many participants with a view to bringing to light issues around equality and diversity in the workplace.

The Workplace Gender Equality Review Report published by the Commonwealth Office for Women in March this year revealed that while the Workplace Gender Equality Act is a good start, more needs to be done to bridge the equality gap in Australia’s workforces to encourage balance and equity between not just genders, but other minority and diverse groups. This will ultimately lead to an increase in workplace participation and productivity.

In fact, research from the BankWest Curtin Economics Centre and the CoA Workplace Gender Equality Act (WGEA) Review showed that there is a causal relationship between increasing gender diversity in senior leadership teams and an increase in key company productivity, profitability, and performance metrics.

The WGEA Review revealed that a number of key stakeholders said that the current ‘minimum standards’ of the Act are out of step with community expectations about what needs to be done to drive gender equality in workplaces. Simply having a strategy or policy on one of the equality indicators was roundly criticised as barely meeting the bar of being a ‘standard.’

Lively discussion exploring themes of challenges, diversity, and flexibility

Systematiq’s Women In Industry event created an energy not usually experienced when discussing such sobering topics. Panellists and participants alike lingered to chat and share their experiences, most voicing a view that they would like to continue such open and positive conversation.

The lively discussion explored the themes of gender challenges in the workplace, creating supportive environments for diversity, and what we can bring to a post-covid work model. Responses generated raw, authentic, and personal observations and experiences from the panellists and audience. The conversation continued well into the networking event, with people eager to share their stories.

The event was MCed by Claire Willette, Global Trade Control Lead – Asia Pacific, Australia, and China with Boeing. Claire has a wealth of experience across various Defence and business management portfolios. Prior to joining Boeing, Claire was the CEO of the Australian Defence Alliance – Victoria. She also held the role of US Secretary of Defense’s Exchange Officer to the Australian Secretary of Defence. Claire also serves as a Non-Executive Director on the board of Praemium, an ASX-listed company.

Another of our panellists was Astrid Kauffman, who currently holds the position of Victorian President of Engineers Australia. Astrid has experience across a range of industries including transport, infrastructure, defence, information technology and maritime and ports. She has worked with Engineers Australia for the past 5 years and held mentoring advisory roles in the rail sector. 

Franca Napoli, our other panellist, is General Manager of 4PL Services, with Toll Logistics. Franca has had a successful career in the logistics sector, working closely with the Department of Defence through her role as General Manager of 4PL Services, and working within Toll Transport for the past 16 years. Franca also holds the position of Cultural Ambassador within Toll, which sees her champion cultural diversity and inclusion within the organisation.

Gender based experiences build opportunity for growth

When the discussion turned to challenges faced in the workplace due to gender, Franca shared some observations about her early years and how these informed her leadership style today. She has learned how to use communication and social skills to build trust and respect with colleagues and clients alike. She shared that it is critical to provide psychological safety for women in the workplace, so that they are not put in compromising or uncomfortable situations. 

Astrid also spoke of turning negative gender-biased attitudes into positive opportunities.
She shared some experiences from early in her career where because of her gender she was perceived to have no authority or decision-making power and was often not taken seriously. However, she has also been offered interesting and different opportunities which she continues to embrace and make her own.

Claire observed that even after over 20 years in leadership roles, she is still often the only woman on a board, in a meeting, or part of a leadership team. However, she has found that women are very good at bringing each other along and supporting each other through their own networks by sharing experiences and fostering trust and safe spaces.

Diversity leads to better design, greater value, and shared understanding

Discussion moved to how we can better support diversity in the workplace. The recent 2021 Census found that almost half of Australians have a parent born overseas (48.2 per cent) and the population continues to be drawn from around the globe, with 27.6 per cent reporting a birthplace overseas. Additionally, the Census shows that Australia has welcomed more than one million people (1,020,007) into Australia since 2017. 

Astrid commented that instead of there being one ‘right’ or expected way of behaving in order to fit in, perhaps it’s time to change our expectations of what is normal? It is a great opportunity to look at how we can provide supportive environments for people from diverse backgrounds so we can gain greater value by their contribution.

She observed, “As engineers if we limit our design for any dominant group, we don’t design for everyone. We need to make sure we are inclusive in our design thinking and processes in order to build our environment, products or services that are appropriate for the entire population. The more we create space for people to be who they are, the more we get from them as they feel comfortable and safe to be their authentic selves.”

Franca contributed that by fostering a diverse culture, we bring diversity of thinking to the workplace. In her team she has 60-70% who have a parent born overseas. This is celebrated within Toll and seen as an asset by clients who then have a certain expectation that they will be able to share a cultural understanding.

Claire commented that it is important to change with the times and with the change in demographics. “We have to be agile and embrace change in the workplace, or we will be left behind. These days clients and employees vote with their feet and now have the power to do so.”

The positive and negatives effects of Covid-19 on our workplace model

Of course, Covid-19 has proven to be a game-changer for businesses in how they interact with clients, employees, and networks. We have learned to forge connections in the virtual world and embrace flexibility in our workplace models. But has this had a positive or negative impact on the ability to feel connected and supported?

Astrid acknowledged that she has noticed a nostalgia for the pre-Covid world, but this world wasn’t perfect. “It’s important to reflect on what has been gained and put those learnings into practice so we can create better workplaces and environments.”

Franca added that while it is important to continue to have evolving overarching business policies in place, individual conversations and allowance for flexibility has become increasingly important and expected. 

“We must find a way to strike a balance, as there is no doubt that the culture shifts when people are in the office and interacting in person. However, it is important to find a balance for staff now. Flexibility is here to stay.”

Astrid added: “We must strive towards flexibility without penalty. There needs to be a shift towards measuring productivity and the value of a person’s contribution, rather than regimented hours or shifts.”

Claire spoke about her own feelings of isolation during lockdowns and how this has shaped her view to workplace models today: “We must also make sure we provide a comfortable and accessible environment for people who are working remotely. We must be careful we are not creating unintentional gaps for people in the virtual space who may need support – for example, those who are more introverted or extraverted.” 

Franca added that while communication has shifted to an online environment, this can create inadvertent challenges. “We must not make assumptions in our communication and ask, ‘what is your intent?’ We must also be continuously mindful towards others and be sure we have interpreted correctly, without the usual visual cues of face-to-face communication.”

Questions and discussion came from the audience around attraction and retention of women into STEM careers, the merit of quotas in the workplace, and how we can create safe, supportive environments through onboarding as well as mid-career entry back into the workforce after a break.

By inviting both men and women to the event, it sparked inspiring conversations during the networking time after the panel discussion, with people wanting to linger and hear about each other’s experiences. 

One audience member observed: “It feels like we were part of a safe environment to share, and some of my male colleagues were genuinely surprised to hear that most women I know have experienced some form of inappropriate behaviour in their workplace.”

“It makes me want to question, what can we do better as an organisation and are we providing a safe and supportive environment for all our staff?” said Systematiq director Brydon Johnson.

It certainly sounds like the start of a worthwhile conversation.